Malaria is a serious and sometimes fatal disease caused by a parasite that infects certain types of mosquitoes. This parasite can be transmitted from mosquitoes when they bite humans to feed on our blood.
About 700-800 cases of malaria are diagnosed in Australia each year mainly from travellers infected in parts of the world where malaria transmission occurs, such as sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
The World Health Organization estimates that in 2010, there were 216 million cases of malaria, and 655,000 people died of malaria, most of them children in Africa.
Malaria transmission occurs in many tropical and subtropical countries including parts of Central and South America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific.
Any child or adult who travels to a country where malaria transmission occurs should be aware of the risk of the disease and may need to take precautions against contracting malaria. This includes tourists, business travellers, long-term travellers, missionaries, airline crew, students, and those returning to their home countries to visit friends and relatives.
First- and second-generation immigrants are at a higher risk of malaria infection because they may not realise that they do not have or have lost any protection that they may have had against malaria. Malaria is particularly serious for a pregnant woman and her foetus.
Symptoms of malaria include fever and flu-like illness, including shaking chills, headache, muscle aches, and tiredness. Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea may also occur. Malaria is potentially life-threatening and can cause mental confusion, seizures, coma, kidney failure, and death if not treated immediately.
Malaria symptoms typically occur at least 7 to 30 days after infection. Fever in the first week of travel is unlikely to be malaria, but any illness should be promptly evaluated by a medical professional.
Preventative antimalarial drugs used by travellers can postpone the presentation of malaria. In such cases, the first symptoms of the disorder can appear up to a year after the travel. To help your healthcare providers in making the right diagnosis, remember to inform them of all your travel and destinations.
Malaria is transmitted from the bite of a mosquito that is infected with the malaria parasite.
There are two main ways to prevent malaria infection:
- Firstly, prevent mosquito bites: Cover exposed skin by wearing long pants and sleeves, and a hat. Use an appropriate insect repellent as directed and reapply as required; if using sunscreen, apply the sunscreen first then the repellent. Use permethrin-treated clothing and equipment such as boots and tents. Sleep in a screened and air-conditioned room or use a bed net if the area you’re sleeping in is exposed to the outdoors.
- Take an antimalarial medication: There are several different antimalarial medications available and your doctor will be able to decide which one is most suitable for you depending on your itinerary. These need to be taken before, during and after your trip.
It is critical to get immediate treatment of malaria. Any traveller who becomes ill with a fever or flu-like illness while traveling or up to one year after returning home should immediately seek professional medical care. Inform your health care provider that you have been in a malaria-endemic area and ask if you should be tested for malaria infection.
Malaria is diagnosed with a laboratory blood test to determine the presence of the malaria parasite.
Treatment will depend on several factors including the country’s national guidelines, the type of malaria, pregnancy, and any other illnesses the patient has or medications they are using.
Urgent medical advice is recommended for the onset of malaria-like symptoms.