Malaria – Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, Prevention

Malaria is an infectious disease caused by a parasite that is transmitted via mosquitos. There are different types of malaria parasites but the most deadly type is commonly found in Africa. Not all mosquitos are malaria carriers but if you live in or are visiting a high risk area, you should take every precaution to prevent malaria infection. Malaria can kill you and there are strict guidelines governing prevention and treatment which should not be ignored.

Causes of Malaria

The malaria parasites belong to the Plasmodium family and the most dangerous species is Plasmodium falciparum, This species is common in Africa although other strains like Plasmodium ovale, vivax and malariae may be found in other tropical regions like Asia.

The carrier for the malaria parasite is the mosquito, specifically the female Anopheles mosquito. When the mosquito bites an infected person, it ingests an immature form of the parasite which then matures within the mosquito. This then sits in the salivary gland of the mosquito and when you are bitten by the mosquito, it transmits the parasite into your bloodstream.

Signs and Symptoms of Malaria

The most common symptom of malaria  is the fever with shaking chills. This symptom is common in other infectious diseases like the seasonal flu and a times malaria is missed because it is confused with these conditions.

Other typical symptoms of a malaria infection include profuse sweating (‘cold sweat’), severe fatigue and a reduced state of consciousness. You may also experience nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, a lack of appetite, aches and pains, coughing and convulsions (‘fits’).

All these symptoms are non-specific and if you have recently travelled to a high risk area and are exhibiting these symptoms, you should consult with your doctor immediately.

Complications of Malaria

Malaria infection can cause damage to the liver and kidney, anaemia, enlarged spleen, breathing problems and dehydration. It can even cause brain swelling and damage and if left untreated, a malaria patient will slip into a coma.  Young children, pregnant women and immunocompromised patients are most at risk as well as travellers venturing into high risk areas without taking any preventative measures. Pregnant women who become infected can transmit the infection to their unborn child leading to birth complications and miscarriage.

Treatment and Prevention

There are specific guidelines for the treatment of malaria. Your doctor will be aware of the latest developments, drugs and procedures that is effective in treating the infection. There are different classes of malarial drugs used in the treatment and you should not attempt to treat or manage the infection without medical treatment. This can lead to complications or even cause death.

Preventing malaria infection should be the focus of disease management and efforts are underway to develop an effective vaccine. For now, antimalarial drugs are your best option. These drugs contain quinine which should be taken 1 to 2 weeks before embarking on a trip and should be continued for up to 4 weeks after your return from a high risk area. Antimalarial drugs have many side effects but this should not detract you from using it as the consequences could be fatal if your are unprotected. Mosquito nets, coils for burning and skin repellents are also useful but should not be the only method of prevention.

Speak to your doctor or visit a travel clinic for further advice on preventing malaria. Do not try to use other measures that have not been scientifically proven to prevent malaria.

Some of the common home prevention practices include drinking gin and tonic while on vacation in a high risk area. Tonic water contains quinine and it was this chemical that helped some British soldiers to prevent malaria infection while occupying India hundreds of years ago. Gin and tonic water was a common sundowner at the time and while it may offer some protection, it is important to remember that the malaria parasite is becoming more resistant these days and there is no measured dose of gin and tonic that can provide protection. Antimalarial drugs are your only reliable option for prevention of malaria.

Another growing trend is to use herbal tinctures containing the herb, wormwood. This is based on the new artemisin drugs, where the active ingredient was isolated and extracted from the wormwood herb. It is important to remember that the herbal form of wormwood may not have the same active ingredient or be processed in the body in the same way as the artemisin drug. There is no guarantee that using the herb will be effective and it can be dangerous, especially if you are using the wrong species of the herb.