BY MARGARET TYSON & DR. GEORGE TYSON
Reducing the number of cases of malaria is part of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. Through a variety of actions, this goal of case reduction has been met. Unfortunately, malaria remains a serious problem. Tropical regions around the world are mainly affected. In sub-Saharan Africa in particular, only 15 countries made up 4 out of 5 cases worldwide. There is still much work to be done.
WHAT IS MALARIA?
Malaria is a disease. It is caused by a parasite, a type of organism that takes its food from its host and harms the host in return. The malaria parasite is called Plasmodium, and humans act as a host. Malaria is spread by mosquitoes. Three hundred years ago, people thought it was caused by “bad air” from the swamps and marshes. Of course, if you live near a swamp or marsh in a warm area, you know that mosquitoes live there!
When the mosquito bites someone, the Plasmodium gets into the blood through the mosquito, which has picked up the parasite after it bit an infected person. In this case, the mosquito is known as a “vector” of the disease. Mosquitoes themselves are not affected, but they spread the disease. The Plasmodium then multiplies in the blood, causing the symptoms of malaria.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?
Malaria causes a number of symptoms in patients. Symptoms usually begin one to three weeks (8-25 days) after infection. Often, malaria has the same symptoms as the flu and many other endemic diseases or viruses. Fever, chills, and sweating are the most common. Someone infected with malaria may also have a headache or back pain. Some people experience pain in their abdomen or muscles, and may have nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. They might feel tired or weak, or have trouble breathing.
DEATH FROM MALARIA
Death from malaria is related to complications as the body reacts to the spreading Plasmodium parasite. Normally, our bodies have a whole series of functions that go on to keep us active and healthy. When these processes are interrupted, the body can overreact to fight infection to compensate. Sometimes, as in malaria or HIV, the disease itself has tricks to prevent the immune system from catching and fully removing a disease.
The Plasmodium parasite lives in blood cells. It tricks the body when it tries to prevent the blood cells from being destroyed. In a healthy person, the body constantly creates new and destroys old blood cells, which make up our blood. The effect of the Plasmodium parasite on circulation and the way it tries to “hide” is what can cause a severe infection. Over 1 million people around the world die from malaria every year. Millions more live with chronic malaria, a debilitating state with acute episodes.
DIAGNOSIS AND TREATMENT
The good news is that there is diagnosis and treatment. Accurate diagnosis requires looking at a sample of the patient’s blood in a laboratory. Previously, in many semi-rural areas of Africa where malaria is common, this was not possible. However, access to rapid diagnostic tests has increased in endemic countries.
Without an accurate diagnosis, having a fever and recent mosquito bites are the basis for treating a sick person with anti-malarial drugs. The medicine available in a region may vary based on the most common type of malaria and access to medicine.
Researchers around the world are currently working on a malaria vaccine. In the meantime efforts to prevent malaria often focus on preventing mosquito reproduction and mosquito bites. Mosquitoes are commonly killed by spraying the inside of homes (indoor residual spraying) with chemicals. The chemicals kill the mosquito before it bites or infects another person. Additionally, mosquito reproduction can be prevented by draining standing water where mosquitoes lay their eggs.
So far, the most effective methods have been the use of insecticide treated nets (ITN) to surround a person while sleeping, as mosquitoes are most active from dusk to dawn. Non-treated nets are also beneficial, although not nearly as effective. Covering exposed skin can also help. Nets should be used by children and pregnant women in particular.
Much progress has been made against malaria. Much work still remains to be done.
• The Plasmodium parasite causes malaria.
• It is spread by mosquitoes.
• When a mosquito bites an infected person and then bites another person, it spreads the disease.
• Malaria can feel like the flu.
• There is no vaccine yet, but many medicines do help.
• You can get malaria again if you had it before.