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Travel bugs: malaria-proof your next adventure

Planning to travel to the spirited cities and atmospheric temples of South East Asia? Or perhaps discover the unique landscapes of Sub-Saharan Africa? To make sure the only travel bug you’re bitten by is the figurative one, Merret, world traveler and one of Ada’s medical experts, shares how she malaria-proofed her recent trip to Namibia and Botswana.

What is malaria and how could I catch it?

Malaria is a preventable and curable yet widespread infectious disease caused by a parasite called Plasmodium. It transmits through the bite of a female Anopheles mosquito.

According to the WHO, in 2016 there were 216 million cases of malaria worldwide and 445,000 malaria-related deaths. The good news is that modern medicine is making progress to help people living in and traveling to regions affected by malaria. There are simple things travelers can do to avoid catching this life-threatening disease before and during their trips.

What parts of the world are affected by malaria?

Malaria typically transmits in tropical and subtropical areas, where the Anopheles mosquitoes live and multiply. The highest rates of disease transmission are found in Sub-Saharan Africa, but regions such as South East Asia and Latin America are also badly affected. Depending on exactly where you travel to, you can be affected by different subtypes of malaria.

The CDC has a world malaria map that can also be broken down by the 91 countries affected by the disease, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.

Who is most at risk of malaria?

People living in or traveling to areas where malaria is present are most at risk. However, certain population groups are more in danger than others if they contract malaria. These include infants and young children, pregnant women, and patients with a weakened immune system such as co-infection with HIV.

What should I do before my trip?

Plan your trip well in advance! Pre-travel preparation depends on your health status, country of travel, duration of the journey, and resistance to and accessibility of medication. Some medications must be taken before the start of your trip, which is why it’s important to speak with a doctor before setting off to assess your individual case.

If you are traveling to one of the high-risk areas mentioned above, your doctor will probably recommend drugs to help guard against malaria, also referred to as ‘chemoprophylaxis’. These drugs previously carried a lot more risks of side effects, but these days they are largely well-tolerated and easily available.

Your doctor’s decision on whether you should take chemoprophylaxis will depend on the country, duration of travel, any other medications you are taking and whether you are in one of the at-risk population groups.

However, avoiding getting bitten by a mosquito during your travels is the most important thing, even if you are taking chemoprophylaxis, as unfortunately, no antimalarial drug is 100% protective. Avoiding bites during your trip will also take some planning before you leave.

Packing list:

  • An insecticide-treated mosquito net (if you are not staying in mosquito-free accommodation) to completely cover you while sleeping
  • Insect repellant with at least 30% Diethyltoluamide (DEET) — check for special repellents available to protect children and babies
  • Tightly woven, loose-fitting, light-colored clothing that covers as much of your skin as possible, such as long-sleeved shirts, full-length pants, high collars, long socks and covered shoes

How about during my trip?

Again, the most important rule: avoid mosquito bites! Even if you take chemoprophylaxis, getting bitten by a mosquito in an affected part of the world carries a risk of contracting malaria. In addition to the measures listed above, regularly apply your insect repellent, especially during dusk and dawn.

Taking great care to avoid mosquito bites will also guard you against several other mosquito-transmitted diseases, such as Dengue fever, Chikungunya fever, Zika Virus, West Nile Virus and Yellow fever.

How will I know if I get malaria?

Malaria symptoms are usually experienced between 10–15 days after a bite, but can also appear several months or even up to one year later. The most typical symptom is rhythmic or episodic fever, also known as ‘swinging fever’, that may be coming and going but may also be permanent, combined with tiredness, headaches, joint or muscle pain, chills, sweats, headaches, and malaise (generally feeling unwell). Some people also experience nausea, vomiting or diarrhea.

These symptoms can be mild, and are sometimes confused with the common cold, so it is essential to get tested immediately if you experience these symptoms and are living or traveling in an affected area.

How can I get treated for malaria?

A malaria diagnosis takes around 30 minutes, and a doctor can prescribe medication that is highly effective if you are treated quickly. The most important thing is to recognize the symptoms early and seek prompt medical advice. Travelers: even if several weeks, or months, or even a year, has passed since your return, get immediate medical advice from your doctor if you suspect you have contracted malaria. Safe travels!

María PradoMaría Prado

Senior Social Media Strategist at Ada Health