Planning to travel to the vibrant cities and exquisite temples of South East Asia? Or perhaps discover the magnificent landscapes of Sub-Saharan Africa? To ensure you're only bitten by the travel bug, 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? How can I contract it?
Although malaria is preventable and curable, it's still a widespread infectious disease. It's caused by a parasite called Plasmodium, which is transmitted to humans through the bite of a female Anopheles mosquito.
According to the World Health Organization, 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 in regions affected by malaria – either those living there or travelers passing by. There are simple things travelers can do before and during their trips to avoid catching this life-threatening disease.
Which 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 severely affected. Depending on where you travel, you can be affected by different subtypes of malaria.
The World Health Organization 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 contracting 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.
How should I prepare for 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, the most important thing is to avoid mosquito bites during your travels, even if you are taking chemoprophylaxis, as unfortunately, no antimalarial drug is 100% protective. But, avoiding bites during your trip will also take some planning before you leave.
Here's a helpful packing list:
- An insecticide-treated mosquito net (if you are not staying in a 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, yet loose-fitting and 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
But, how about during my trip?
Just to emphasize the most important rule again: avoid mosquito bites! Even if you take chemoprophylaxis, mosquito bites from 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 contracted 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 is malaria treated?
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 to seek prompt medical advice. Travelers: even if it's been several weeks or months or even a year since your return, get immediate medical advice from your doctor if you suspect you have contracted malaria. And on that note, safe travels!