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Malaria: Its Causes, Treatment and Methods of Prevention

What Causes Malaria?

Malaria may not be something that we have to worry about here in the UK, but if you are planning a holiday then it might be something you’ll need to consider. Protecting against malaria is increasingly important as the number travelling overseas continues to rise.

Malaria is a serious, and sometimes fatal, tropical disease spread by mosquitoes. If you’re travelling to a tropical or subtropical area, with a risk of malaria, such as Brazil or the Philippines, then it’s crucial to take the correct precautions to enjoy a safe and healthy trip.

Visit our Anti-malaria conditions page

Malaria is found in more than 100 countries, mainly in tropical regions of the world, including:

  • large areas of Africa and Asia
  • Central and South America
  • parts of the Middle East
  • some Pacific islands

Malaria is caused by a type of parasite known as Plasmodium, transmitted by an infected mosquito. There are many different types of Plasmodium parasites, but only 5 cause malaria in people. The Plasmodium parasite is mainly spread by female Anopheles mosquitoes (https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/malaria), which are known as “night-biting” mosquitoes, because they most commonly bite between dusk and dawn. 

There are five types of Plasmodium that infect humans, but the following two are the causes of the majority of cases:

  • Plasmodium falciparum - causes the most severe form of malaria and the most deaths, the most common malaria in Africa.
  • Plasmodium vivax is the most common malaria outside of Africa and your symptoms may not develop until later. It can stay in your body for many months.

When an infected mosquito bites a person, it passes the parasites into the bloodstream and the parasite travels to the liver. The infection develops in the liver before re-entering the bloodstream and invading the red blood cells, which can result in bouts of fever, chills and sweating. Malaria can be fatal if not treated and can also cause serious complications, including:

  • Severe anaemia 
  • Cerebral malaria 

Those at risk of more serious complications from malaria include pregnant women, elderly and young children. The NHS also advises pregnant women not to travel to malaria risk areas.

Malaria Treatment and Prevention

Malaria is a medical emergency and needs to be treated as quickly as possible. Luckily, malaria can be successfully treated with medicines. These get rid of all the parasites from your blood. It can take up to two weeks of treatment for the parasites to be fully eliminated.

The best malaria treatment, however, is malaria prevention. It is important to prevent malaria as, once contracted, it can be a difficult disease to treat and can become life-threatening within 24 hours. It's very important that you understand the malaria risk in the area or areas you may be traveling to, and that you take precautions to prevent the disease. It is still possible to get malaria even if you are taking the right malaria medicine, making these precautions so essential in every trip you take to a mosquito common country. 

Malaria can often be avoided using the commonly used A B C D approach to prevention, which stands for:

Awareness of risk

Find out whether you're at risk of getting malaria. Checking whether you need to take an anti-malaria treatment for the countries you’re visiting is very important. Nobody is completely immune to malaria, even if you grew up in a country where it is common, so taking the necessary precautions should still be a priority.

You can visit your GP or local travel clinic for malaria advice as soon as you know where you're going to be travelling to.

Bite prevention 

There are multiple steps you can take to avoid being bitten:

  • Stay somewhere that has effective air conditioning and screening on doors and windows. If this isn't possible, make sure doors and windows close properly.
  • Sleep under an intact mosquito net that's been treated with insecticide, unless you are sleeping in an air-conditioned room.
  • Use an effective insect repellent on your skin and in sleeping environments frequently. 
  • Wear light, loose-fitting trousers rather than shorts, and wear shirts with long sleeves. This is particularly important during the early evening and at night, when mosquitoes prefer to feed.

Check whether you need to take malaria prevention tablets

If you do, make sure you take the right anti-malaria tablets at the right dose, and finish the course. There's currently no vaccine available that offers protection against malaria, so it's very important to take antimalarial medication correctly to reduce your chances of getting the disease.

When taking antimalarial medication:

  • Make sure you get the right antimalarial tablets before you go – talk with your GP or pharmacist if you're unsure
  • Depending on the type you're taking, continue to take your tablets for up to 4 weeks after returning from your trip to cover the incubation period of the disease
  • Always follow the instructions on the packaging carefully
  • Your GP will give you more information upon prescription

Visit our Anti-malaria conditions page

Diagnosis

You must seek medical help if you fall ill while travelling in, or when you return from, an area with malaria up to a year after your return, even if you have been using the anti-malaria tablets. It is essential you get a fast and accurate diagnosis, as malaria can develop quickly.

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