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What is malaria

Illustration of a mosquito with plasmodium parasite

Malaria is one of the biggest health challenges the world faces today. According to a recent World Health Organization (WHO) report, 409,000 people died from the disease in 2019 alone, and approximately 229 million people were newly infected.ref1 And this is despite the fact that malaria is treatable and preventable.

If you live in or plan to visit a part of the world with a high malaria risk, understanding the disease can go a long way to helping you take care of yourself.

So let’s learn more about malaria, what the symptoms are, and get tips on how you can protect yourself and your loved ones. 

How is malaria transmitted?

Malaria is a condition caused by a parasite called Plasmodium. 5 different species of Plasmodium can cause malaria, and they are usually spread between humans by the female Anopheles mosquito.ref2 When one of these mosquitos bites a person with malaria, it takes up the Plasmodium parasite. It can then pass the parasite on to people it feeds on afterward.ref3 Because malaria is passed on via blood, it can also spread through infected blood transfusions, organ transplants, and shared needles.ref3

Malaria parasites struggle to survive in cooler parts of the world.ref3 That’s why African countries, where climates are usually tropical, provide the perfect environment for Plasmodium to survive and spread throughout the year. In 2019, 94% of malaria cases and deaths were in African countries.ref1 

Malaria is a serious disease. But doctors can treat it with prescription medication that kills the Plasmodium parasite.ref3 With fast treatment, it’s possible to make a full recovery. So it’s essential you know what to look out for and when to see a doctor.

What are the symptoms?

Malaria symptoms can start after 7 days of being infected. The most common initial symptoms are:ref2

  • Fever 
  • Chills 
  • Headache
  • Nausea 
  • Vomiting 
  • Muscle pain
  • Diarrhea 

More severe symptoms can include:ref2 

  • Acute renal failure 
  • Pulmonary edema 
  • Generalized convulsions
  • Circulatory collapse 

There are several conditions with similar symptoms to malaria. This can make it harder for doctors to diagnose.ref2 The best way of diagnosing malaria is for a doctor to check your blood under a microscope.ref3 

If you think you might have malaria, you should go to the doctor straight away. They’ll help diagnose you to begin treatment as fast as possible before your symptoms become severe.ref3

What can I do to protect myself and my loved ones?

Familiarize yourself with the Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC)'s malaria guidance. These can be helpful for both visitors and residents of countries where there’s a high risk of malaria:ref3

  • Take anti-malarial medication before traveling to high-risk areas.
  • Speak to your doctor about bringing malaria treatment medication with you on your trip to ensure a supply in case you need it.
  • If you get sick within 1 year of returning from a trip, tell your doctor about the trip and ask to be tested for malaria.
  • Use mosquito repellent spray, particularly at night.
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts at night, or sleep under insecticide-treated bed nets.

Choosing the right preventative malaria medicine can depend on your travel plans, medical history, age, allergies, and pregnancy status.ref3 So make sure you speak to your doctor before taking any medicine to prevent malaria.

Is there a malaria vaccine?

WHO recommends the new malaria RTS, S vaccine for children living in high-risk areas. Studies have shown it can reduce the risk of severe malaria in young children by 30% and has a good safety profile.ref4

By understanding the malaria symptoms and knowing when to see a doctor, you can better protect yourself and your family from malaria.


  1. WHO. “World Malaria Report 2020: 20 Years of Global Progress and Challenges.” Accessed 28 October 2021.

  2. WHO. “Malaria.” Accessed 09 November 2021.

  3. CDC. “Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs).” Accessed 9 November 2021.

  4. WHO. “WHO Recommends Groundbreaking Malaria Vaccine for Children at Risk.” Accessed 10 November 2021.

Writer:

Rungwe Hashim
Rungwe Hashim

Rungwe is a Localization Manager (Swahili) at Ada.

Medical reviewer:

Vincent Cochez
Vincent Cochez

Vincent is a Medical Knowledge Translator at Ada.