What is malaria?
Malaria is a potentially fatal disease that can be contracted through mosquito bites. Every year almost 300 million people are infected with the disease, and over one million people die from it.
Approximately 1,500 travellers return to the UK with malaria. Often they haven't taken anti-malaria tablets, or haven't followed their doctor's instructions correctly, which is why they're vulnerable.
What are the common symptoms of malaria?
Symptoms of malaria are similar to flu symptoms and include:
- A fever of 38 ̊C or above
- Sweats and chills
- Generally feeling unwell
- Muscle pains
If left untreated, malaria can cause a number of complications including anaemia, where the red blood cells can't carry enough oxygen and you feel drowsy, weak and faint; breathing problems, such as fluid in the lungs; liver failure and jaundice; kidney failure; shock; spontaneous bleeding; abnormally low blood sugar; swelling and rupturing of the spleen; and dehydration.
These complications can appear within hours of first displaying symptoms. This means that if you experience any of these symptoms after travelling, you should talk to a medical expert as soon as possible.
When do symptoms start to appear?
In general the symptoms of malaria will appear between ten and 14 days after being bitten; however, some types of malaria might not show symptoms until one to several months after being infected. Some types of malaria can remain dormant in the liver for up to four years, causing symptoms when the parasite moves back from the liver into the blood.
How is malaria transmitted?
Malaria is caused by the Plasmodium parasite which is transmitted through mosquito bites. It's the female anopheles mosquito that spreads the disease, becoming infected after biting a person with malaria and passing it on to others. Once bitten, the parasite travels through the bloodstream to the liver, where it grows and develops until it's ready to leave the liver and re-enter the bloodstream. It's then that the parasites reach the red blood cells and invade them, growing and multiplying until the red blood cells burst and release even more parasites into the blood. This process keeps on repeating until you are effectively treated.
Red blood cells will burst every 48 to 72 hours. Every time this happens, you'll experience an attack of chills, fever and sweating.
Where am I most at risk of catching malaria?
Malaria is prevalent in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, parts of the Middle East and Far East, and some Pacific Islands like Papua New Guinea. Some people have also contracted malaria from parts of Europe. You should always check which vaccinations you need when travelling abroad, because they vary with each country.
In some regions mosquitoes can be more active during the wet season; however, mosquitoes bite all year round and there is no time in which the risk of contracting malaria should be considered less.
How can I prevent catching malaria?
Fortunately malaria is preventable, and curable, which saves countless lives. If you are travelling to an area where there's a high risk of contracting malaria, you will be prescribed antimalarials to prevent infection. Usually you will need to start taking the medication before you leave, which allows the doctor to monitor whether you develop any side effects. If you do, this gives you sufficient time to try an alternative medication.
Antimalarials are used to treat malaria as well as to prevent it.
Is it safe to take anti-malaria tablets if I'm pregnant?
Pregnant women have a higher risk of developing severe malaria and it is more dangerous for them and the baby. As a result, pregnant women are strongly advised against travelling to countries where the risk of contracting malaria is high.
If you're pregnant and you can't avoid travelling to malaria risk areas, there are a couple of antimalarials that you can be prescribed. However, make sure your doctor knows you are pregnant because certain medications, like Doxycycline for example, are never prescribed to pregnant or breastfeeding women because it can harm your baby.
Is it worth taking anti-malaria tablets if I'm only going to be in an infected area for a couple of days?
Yes. All it takes is one bite from an infected mosquito and you can catch malaria. For this reason, it's essential you take anti-malaria tablets if they have been prescribed to you.
You should take your travel itinerary to a medical professional who will advise you how best to take antimalarials and how long you should take them for.
I've been told to keep taking anti-malaria tablets even after I come home. Why is this?
Malaria parasites can stay inactive in your blood and suddenly awaken. That's why it's important to complete a course, which means taking tablets when you're back home; to protect you in case the parasites re-awaken.
There are countless stories of people who either forgot to take every single anti-malaria tablet when on holiday, or didn't complete a course after coming home, and have contracted malaria. It's a potentially fatal disease: nine people die from malaria every year.
What should I do if I think I've contracted malaria?
Whilst malaria can kill, it's curable if diagnosed quickly. This means that if you develop any flu like symptoms - as mentioned above - you must seek immediate medical advice.
The same drugs that prevent malaria are also used to treat it; however, if you've been taking antimalarials but have contracted the disease, you must be prescribed different antimalarials. You'll need to begin treatment as soon as you're diagnosed.
Whilst malaria treatments can leave you feeling weak and tired for several weeks, it's much more appealing than the alternative, which could result in death.