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What is malaria?

Human malaria is considered a tropical disease, but some cases happen outside the tropics. Most cases are found in Southeast Asia, China, India, and Africa, parts of the Middle East, Mexico, Central and South America.

The World Health Organization estimates that in 2010 malaria caused 219 million clinical episodes, and 660,000 deaths.

Image-CDC/ James Gathany

Image-CDC/ James Gathany

On average, 1,500 cases of malaria are reported every year in the United States, even though malaria has been eliminated from this country since the early 1950’s.

Malaria is considered the most important parasitic disease affecting humans. The disease has great socio-economic importance and helps in keeping poor countries poor in a vicious cycle.

The protozoan parasite belongs from the genus Plasmodium. There are many species of Plasmodium that infect vertebrates, but only 4 that are important to humans. The four species are:  Plasmodium falciparum,  Plasmodium vivax,  Plasmodium malariae and  Plasmodium ovale.

In addition, there has been some documented cases of people getting simian malaria (P. knowlesi).

For malaria to occur you must have the following; a susceptible population, malaria carriers and the right mosquito vector (the female Anopheles mosquito).

The life cycle for all the malaria species is essentially the same. It’s very complicated (with part in the mosquito and part in the human) but in a nutshell, in humans it goes like this: During a blood meal, a malaria-infected female Anopheles mosquito inoculates the parasite into the human host.

The parasite almost immediately infects liver cells and goes through a maturation series and ruptures. Just a side, P. vivax and P. ovale can have a dormant stage in the liver and can cause relapses in the blood weeks to years later.

The parasite then moves on to infect red blood cells. Blood stage parasites are responsible for the clinical manifestations of the disease.

The parasite is later ingested by an Anopheles mosquito during a blood meal and the cycle in the mosquito happens. It really is a vicious cycle.

The disease may manifest itself after an incubation of days to months. Once the parasites build up in the blood, symptoms are non-specific; fever, chills, body aches, diarrhea and vomiting. At this point the only way to confirm is finding the parasites in blood. These early stages resemble many other febrile diseases.

Paroxysms (due to rupture and release of the parasite and metabolic products into the system), happen every 48-72 hours depending on the species.

There is a cold stage which leads to teeth chattering, shaking chills followed by a hot stage (fever) where temperatures may reach 106°F. Convulsions may develop particularly in children.

Untreated P. falciparum (the life-threatening species) can lead to severe malaria. Severe malaria is characterized by cerebral malaria, severe anemia, renal filure (black water fever), respiratory distress and bleeding disorders and shock.

Prompt treatment for falciparum malaria is essential cause death from cerebral complications may occur.

The other human malarias are not usually life-threatening. People who are partially immune or non-immune but taking prophylactic anti-malarials, may show atypical symptoms and a longer incubation period.

Treatment of malaria depends on several factors; The type (species) of the infecting parasite, the area where the infection was acquired and its drug-resistance status, the clinical status of the patient, any accompanying illness or condition, pregnancy, drug allergies, or other medications taken by the patient.

Chloroquine, Fansidar, mefloquine , Malarone, quinine, doxycycline and artemisin derivatives can be used to treat malaria. See link for treatment guidelines.

As a traveler in a malaria endemic area, what preventive measures can you take?

There is no vaccine currently available for malaria. According to the CDC all travelers to malaria-endemic areas should be advised that taking an appropriate drug regimen and using antimosquito (insecticide treated bed nets, stay in well screened areas, DEET insect repellent) measures will help prevent malaria. Travelers should be informed that no method can protect completely against the risk for contracting malaria.

Malaria and Travelers

Information on Malaria Risk and Prophylaxis, by Country

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About the Author

- Writer, Co-Founder and Executive Editor of The Global Dispatch. Robert has been covering news in the areas of health, world news and politics for a variety of online news sources. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of the website, Outbreak News Today and hosts the podcast, Outbreak News Interviews on iTunes, Stitcher and Spotify Robert is politically Independent and a born again Christian Follow @bactiman63

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  1. Puerto Rico: Three students contract malaria while in the Dominican Republic | Outbreak News Today says:

    […] What Is Malaria? […]

  2. India releases 2014 data on vector borne diseases, more than 500 malaria deaths | Outbreak News Today says:

    […] data on vector borne diseases for 2014 Friday and it shows that there were 535 deaths due to malaria last year. Tripura and Meghalaya States saw the most malaria deaths with 96 and 78, […]

  3. Barbados says hospitalized patients have malaria, quells Ebola rumors | World Wide Outbreak says:

    […] According to Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Joy St. John, the Ministry can confirm that two persons who presented at the QEH with fever have tested positive for malaria. […]

  4. India: Tripura malaria death toll tops 100, ‘medical negligence’ accused | Outbreak News Today says:

    […] NDTV report says that fresh outbreaks in new villages has brought the death toll due to the mosquito borne parasite to 120 across the […]

  5. What is malaria? - The Global Dispatch | Malari... says:

    […] What is malaria? The Global Dispatch For malaria to occur you must have the following; a susceptible population, malaria carriers and the right mosquito vector (the female Anopheles mosquito).  […]

  6. What is malaria? - The Global Dispatch | Health... says:

    […] What is malaria? The Global Dispatch For malaria to occur you must have the following; a susceptible population, malaria carriers and the right mosquito vector (the female Anopheles mosquito).  […]

  7. South Africa: ANC Parliament member, Crosby Moni, succumbs to malaria - The Global Dispatch says:

    […] What is malaria? […]

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    […] What is Malaria? […]

  9. Malaria in the United States: Highest number of cases in four decades - The Global Dispatch says:

    […] Malaria is caused by a parasite transmitted by the bite of an infective female Anopheles mosquito. In 2010, it caused an estimated 660,000 deaths and 219 million cases globally. The signs and symptoms of malaria illness are varied, but the majority of patients have fever. Other common symptoms include headache, back pain, chills, increased sweating, muscle pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and cough. Untreated infections can rapidly progress to coma, kidney failure, respiratory distress, and death. […]

  10. What is malaria? - The Global Dispatch | Geogra... says:

    […] What is malaria? The Global Dispatch For malaria to occur you must have the following; a susceptible population, malaria carriers and the right mosquito vector (the female Anopheles mosquito).  […]

  11. DOD policy on malaria drug, mefloquine, consistant with FDA - The Global Dispatch says:

    […] Malaria is a serious disease caused by a parasite that commonly infects mosquitoes, which then bite humans. It is a major cause of death worldwide but is less common in the United States. The disease is a problem primarily in developing countries with warm climates. Persons who travel to these countries may be at risk of malaria infection and should take drugs to prevent or reduce that risk. People with malaria often experience fever, chills, and flu-like symptoms. Drugs must be taken to treat the disease if you have been infected, but may, themselves, have side effects. […]

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