Alternative names: none
Type of infection: parasitic
Incubation period: 7 to 30 days
Mortality rate: up to 20%
Vector: mosquito (Anopheles species)
The earliest recorded mention of what is presumed to be malaria is from 2,700 BC in China but the name was coined by the Italians from the words “mal aria” (bad air) because they believed that the foul smells from the swamps caused the illness. It wasn’t until the 19th century when the connection between the illness and mosquitoes was established.
Ironically, though we tend to associate malaria with Africa, it was once very common in the United States. It was found in 13 southeastern states until a massive eradication program was started in 1946. The insecticide DDT was sprayed on a national scale to get rid of the mosquito that carries malaria.
Though now absent from America, the disease is still completely endemic through much of Africa, India and some parts of south America.
The Plasmodium parasite that causes malaria is spread by mosquito, though it’s a different species than other mosquito-born illness like yellow fever or Dengue fever. It won’t spread from person to person.
Signs and Symptoms
The symptoms of malaria are not that severe and can easily be mistaken for a number of other diseases. There will be fever, chills, sweating, fatigue, vomiting and headache. The chills and the fever tend to run in cycles, so the patient will feel cold for a few hours, then it shifts to a hot sweaty fever.
If the parasites are not treated, further complications will likely develop and they can be extremely varied. Blood cells can start to break down which leads to anemia and there is often liver failure (seen as jaundice, the yellowing of the skin and eyes). Blood pressure can drop and there can be respiratory problems. The brain and other organs can also be effected, which is when the disease becomes fatal.
There is good drug treatment for malaria, and with medication most people will overcome the infection. Unfortunately, drug-resistance is rampant among Plasmodium species and it’s not a simple matter of declaring one or two drugs as being proper treatment. There are at least a dozen different drugs that are used in various combinations to treat malaria. Without proper training and access, this isn’t something you can prep for or keep easily on hand.
That said, the most common drugs for malaria are chloroquine, doxycycline, primaquine and mefloquine (or some combination). They all have their own benefits and side effects, and it’s not recommended that you take an uneducated guess with these.
There is no vaccine for malaria though there are drug treatments that can be used to prevent the disease. They are basically the same drugs use to treat it, just that they are taken pre- and post-exposure to malaria-infected mosquitoes (in other words, before and after travel to places where malaria is common).
If there is no access to these drugs, then the next best thing is to limit exposure to infected mosquitoes. Screens and mosquito netting can help keep them out of the house,
Unlike a true disease, there are no antibodies involved with a parasite infestation and your body is not protected against future illness if you get over malaria. So it’s quite common to become infected repeatedly when living in areas where malaria is endemic.
Since malaria was once commonly found throughout the United States, it’s not hard to imagine that it could spread that way again if the conditions were right. If the Anopheles mosquito began to spread north from Brazil, it could happen.