Malaria: Prevention and Symptoms
What is malaria and how is it transmitted?
Malaria is an infectious disease caused by several species of a parasite known as Plasmodium.
A parasite is a living organism that can only survive and thrive by living in or on another living organism (host). In the case of malaria, the parasite is transmitted through the bite of a female Anopheles mosquito infected with the Plasmodium parasite. Since male mosquitoes don’t bite, only the female insects can transmit the disease.
When an infected Anopheles mosquito bites a human (or animal), the Plasmodium parasite is transmitted into the victim's bloodstream, where it multiplies in the red blood cells. After a while, the parasite is present in large enough quantities to cause the red blood cells to burst.
In rare cases, malaria can be transmitted from pregnant mothers to their baby. It can also be transmitted through the sharing of contaminated needles and during blood transfusions.
What are the symptoms of malaria?
The onset of malaria symptoms coincides with the multiplication of parasites and the destruction of red blood cells, which leads to anemia. The reproductive cycle varies from one Plasmodium speciia is associated with a range of symptoms. The first symptom to appear is fever, which may or may not be accompanied by headache, muscle pain, weakness, vomiting, diarrhea, coughing, chills with cold sweats, and excessive perspiration.
Is malaria curable?
While the initial symptoms of malaria are often not overly alarming, they can quickly become serious. When malaria is diagnosed promptly, there is a very good chance of recovery. However, some Plasmodium species, including Plasmodium falciparum, which is more prevalent in Africa, can cause more serious infections, and sometimes even be fatal.
Any person travelling in an area with malaria or who has visited such an area in the previous year should consult a doctor immediately if they are experiencing symptoms of malaria.
Where are people most at risk of contracting malaria?
Anopheles mosquitoes thrive in certain parts of the world, particularly in the tropical regions of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Most cases occur in sub-Saharan Africa, the area with the highest mortality rate from malaria.
The risk of contracting malaria varies depending on the region you visit. Sometimes within the same country the risk factor will vary according to certain factors. For example, malaria transmission is rare at altitudes above 2,500 metres, and is more common during the rainy season than during the dry season.
How can I protect myself against malaria?
There are drugs available that can lower the risk of contracting malaria if you are bitten by an infected mosquito. It is important to start taking them several days before arriving in high-risk areas and continue taking them throughout your stay and for several days after leaving the area.
Some Plasmodium species have developed resistance to one or more antimalarial drugs. Choosing the right preventive treatment therefore depends on various factors, such as the particular species of Plasmodium parasite present in the region you are visiting, the season, the location of your lodgings, the duration of your stay, and your personal characteristics.
Any person considering travelling to an area where malaria is known to be present should take preventive treatment, especially children, pregnant women, and those who are immunocompromised, who are at greater risk of developing complications.
Since antimalarial drugs do not guarantee 100% protection against malaria, it is essential you also take precautions to avoid getting bitten by mosquitoes.
It is recommended that you…
- Avoid going outside when mosquitoes are most active, i.e., from dusk to dawn
- Wear long, loose-fitting, pale-coloured clothing. Sleeves should fit snugly at the wrists, shirts should be tucked into pants, and socks worn over the top of pant hems
- Apply DEET or icaridin–based insect repellent to exposed skin
- Sleep beneath an insecticide-treated mosquito net, and tuck it in under the mattress
- Ensure that door and window screens at your lodgings are intact
Trials are currently underway to test malaria vaccines on certain local populations. There is no preventive vaccine available for travellers at the moment.
Your pharmacist: your go-to resource for travel health
Managing your health is an important part of travel planning.
Consult your pharmacist once you’ve chosen your destination. They will assess your risk level depending on your trip itinerary and can provide advice on preventive treatments or appropriate vaccines.
It is important to talk to your pharmacist or a travel health clinic several weeks before your departure date, especially if you are planning a trip that will take you off the beaten path. If you are travelling in an area where malaria is a risk, you will need to begin your preventive drug treatment several days before leaving. Plus, if you need to be vaccinated against other diseases, remember that certain vaccines may require more than one dose, over a span of several weeks, and it can take several weeks for their protective effect to fully kick in.
In some provinces, pharmacists can prescribe drugs for malaria or other travel-related health problems, and can prescribe or administer vaccines recommended for specific destinations. Ask your pharmacist whether they offer these services.
The information contained herein is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide complete information on the subject matter or to replace the advice of a health professional. This information does not constitute medical consultation, diagnosis or opinion and should not be interpreted as such. Please consult your health care provider if you have any questions about your health, medications or treatment.