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Malaria: Causes, prevention and treatment

More often than not, mosquitoes are a whiny disturbance that keeps you awake and leaves you with an itchy welt in the morning. Get bitten by the wrong mosquito, though, and you could find yourself with a life-threatening disease: malaria.

What is Malaria?

Malaria is a very serious disease, killing thousands each year. It is caused by a parasite carried and transmitted by the female anopheles mosquito. If an infected mosquito bites you, parasites are transmitted into your bloodstream causing a potentially life-threatening parasitic infection.

Once you’ve been bitten, the parasites travel to your liver. When they mature, they leave the liver and infect your red blood cells. This is when people typically develop malaria symptoms. 

What are the symptoms?

Malaria symptoms typically present within a few weeks of being bitten by an infected mosquito. However, some types of malaria can lie dormant in your body for up to a year. 

Signs and symptoms of malaria may include:

  • Chills
  • Shaking
  • A high fever
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Convulsions

Because the parasites that cause malaria affect red blood cells, according to the Mayo Clinic, you can also contract malaria from exposure to infected blood, including:

  • From mother to unborn child
  • Through blood transfusions (you can’t donate blood if you’ve been in a malaria-risk area)
  • Sharing needles used to inject drugs 

Should you be wary of malaria?

South Africa is largely malaria-free, but certain parts of the country are risk areas. Sonique van den Berg, a pharmacist at Life Peglerae Hospital, says danger areas include the northeastern side of KwaZulu-Natal, the Lowveld of Mpumalanga and Limpopo, and the parts of the country bordering Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Swaziland. 

She adds that the danger period lies between September and May each year, with January to April being the time with the highest risk for transmission. 

‘If you are travelling elsewhere on the continent, consult your closest travel clinic on malaria-risk countries,’ says Sonique. 

Prevention of malaria

Mosquito bite prevention:

  • Stay indoors, especially from dusk to dawn to dawn. 
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts, long trousers, shoes and socks. 
  • Cover doors and windows with screens. 
  • Stay in air-conditioned rooms where possible.
  • Use insect repellents that contain DEET (diethyltoluamide) for adults and children over two months old on all exposed areas of the body. 
  • Sleep under mosquito nets treated with insecticide (eg. permethrin).
  • Use mosquito pads and coils. 
  • Treat your baggage and clothes with insecticides when leaving the malarial area.

Oral medications for malaria prevention:

  • Mefloquine is taken one to two weeks before travel, then weekly while at your destination, and for four weeks after you leave the malarial area. 
  • Doxycycline is taken daily. You can start one or two days before travel, and then during exposure and for four weeks after leaving the malarial area. 
  • Atovaquone-proguanil is taken daily. You start one to two days before you leave, then take it throughout exposure, as well as for seven days afterwards.

Who is most at risk?

Sonique says that children and pregnant women are two of the most vulnerable groups affected by malaria. 

Some people are more at risk due to pre-existing medical conditions, so you need to share your medical history clearly and provide a full list of medication. 

Sonique cautions that all medicines have adverse effects and the risk of developing serious side effects must be weighed against the risk of contracting malaria. 

‘No prophylaxis is 100% effective,’ she says. ‘However, the Guidelines for the Prevention of Malaria in South Africa, 2017 edition, tells us that the disease in those taking prophylaxis is likely to be milder and less rapidly progressive.’

The information is shared on condition that readers will make their own determination, including seeking advice from a healthcare professional. E&OE. Life Healthcare Group Ltd does not accept any responsibility for any loss or damage suffered by the reader as a result of the information provided.