by Kimberly Allen, RN
Malaria is an infectious disease that can be very serious, even fatal. The World Health Organization estimates that there are approximately 400 million new cases of malaria diagnoses worldwide with approximately 2 million deaths every year. Most Americans diagnosed with malaria were exposed to the disease while visiting countries where malaria is known to be endemic. Malaria is currently endemic over a wide area surrounding the equator which includes the America’s to Africa and Asia.
Malaria is caused by a parasite that infects certain mosquitoes, the mosquito then infects humans. What happens is the mosquito bites a person already infected with malaria becoming infected then moves on to the next person and passes the infection along when it bites the next person. Then once you have been bitten by an infected mosquito the parasites travel to your liver to set up housekeeping. These parasites can remain dormant in your liver up to a year or longer. Once the parasites mature they leave the liver and begin infecting your red blood cells. Once your red blood cells start becoming infected you’ll start developing symptoms associated with malaria. Though this is the standard mode of transmission because these parasites infect the red blood cells malaria can also be transmitted like other blood borne diseases through blood transfusions and needle sharing as well as from a mother to her unborn child.
The WHO has divided malaria into two categories; uncomplicated and severe or complicated. In the majority of cases the symptoms appear anytime between 7-30 days after being infected. In uncomplicated malaria the symptoms are similar to the flu with fever, chills, muscle aches and pains as well as headaches. Some people also experience nausea and vomiting as well as diarrhea and a cough. Many people over look these symptoms thinking they have the flu. It usually isn’t until they notice the symptoms persisting that they seek medical attention. People that develop the severe form of malaria tend to experience bleeding problems as well as liver and/or kidney failure. They can also have central nervous system problems, can go into shock or lapse into a coma. The risk of death significantly increases in this stage of the disease.
Left undiagnosed and untreated malaria can lead to numerous complications including death. Malarial deaths are almost always related to other complications like cerebral malaria which develops when blood filled with parasites block the small blood vessels in your brain causing it to swell. Severe malaria can also cause fluid to build up in your lungs making it difficult to breathe. As the parasites infect the red blood cells they cause damage to the cells which can lead to severe anemia as well as organ failure.
Treatment for malaria depends on a variety of factors including which parasite is causing your malaria, your age and the severity of your symptoms. Also, all women are tested for pregnancy before beginning treatment. There are several antimalarial medications available today, the most commonly used being chlorquine, quinine sulfate, plaquinil, mefloquine or a combination of atovaquone and malarone. In different parts of the world certain strains of malaria have become resistant to some medications so research is ongoing for new medications to treat the drug-resistant parasites.
Prevention is always better that treatment. If you’re planning to travel abroad research the area you are planning on going and if malaria is common to that area talk with your Dr as there are medications that you can take before, during and after your trip that can help prevent the disease. However, it’s important that your Dr know where you plan to travel in order to prescribe the medication that is most effective for that type of malaria. It’s also important to limit your exposure to mosquitoes while on your trip by using mosquito repellents that contain DEET and if you’re going to be outside during the times when mosquitoes are moste active wear protective clothing. Use of a bed net is also a good idea and highly recommended for children and pregnant women.
Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to HealthAndFitnessTalk.com, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.