Imagine having the worst flu of your life. Now imagine having the worst flu of your life and you’re on vacation, far away from home. Malaria. Have you heard of it? Have you ever wondered what exactly it is?
Trust me, this is one illness you do not want to have when you travel, or ever, for that matter!
Very briefly, malaria is a parasitic infection transmitted by a particular type of mosquito. The culprit is the anopheles mosquito, and more specifically, it’s the female anopheles mosquito that transmits the parasite responsible for malaria.
It all begins with a parasite known as Plasmodium and there are several types that infect humans, but the one that causes the most infections and the most severe illness is Plasmodium falciparum.
It all begins with a mosquito bite
The most common way people become infected is by being bitten by an anopheles mosquito that has been infected with the parasite.
When the infected mosquito bites you to feed on your blood, some of the parasites in the mosquito’s saliva is injected into you and voila! The parasite is now in your bloodstream.
But there are other ways that people can become infected. They can become infected by receiving the blood of an infected person through a blood transfusion, or through an organ transplant. An infected pregnant mother can also transmit the parasites to her unborn child during the pregnancy or delivery.
Malaria is very serious. It can and does kill people.
Many children under the age of 5 living in Sub-Saharan Africa die each year due to malaria. Immune compromised people are also at a greater risk of dying.
Travelers from countries where there is no malaria and so have never been exposed to malaria are also at greater risk of getting quite sick, and so are older adults and pregnant women.
7–10 days after being bitten by an infected mosquito, you will likely begin to feel sick.
You’ll feel sick enough to want to see a doctor. The local people living in an area where malaria is common or endemic are quite familiar with the symptoms and may tell you that it seems that you have malaria.
Anyway, you should see a doctor right away. The doctor or the lab technician or phlebotomist obtains a blood sample from you and examines it under the microscope. Malaria is diagnosed if the parasites are identified in your blood.
What it feels like when you have malaria
Malaria is no joke. For some reason, mosquitoes love me. I used to suffer from malaria a lot when I lived in Nigeria and more recently, a few years ago when I was in Ghana and Nigeria.
Let me tell you what it feels like when you have malaria, and why you do not want to get it.
At the beginning of this episode I asked you to imagine you had the worst flu imaginable. When you have malaria, this worst flu feeling is just the tip of the iceberg of how bad you will feel.
First after you have been bitten by an infected mosquito, but you won’t even know that you have any problem until about 7–10 days later when you start having a bad headache. Then you have a fever — and it can actually be a high fever. You get the chills and you shiver. And then you sweat. You feel hot, you feel cold. Sometimes hot and cold at the same time. You are weak. You have nausea and sometimes you vomit. Sometimes you have diarrhea. Sometimes you have both. You can hardly move. Your body aches all over. You just feel absolutely miserable.
And then miraculously, after a day or so, there is a lull in the misery and you begin to feel a tiny bit better. Your fever seems to have reduced a little, and you begin to think that you’re getting better. But, then the whole thing starts all over again. But now, you are even weaker than you were when the symptoms first started.
I used to also become a bit jaundiced and the whites of my eyes would look yellow and that had to do with what the parasites were doing in my liver as it progressed through its lifecycle within my bloodstream. As a result of all that is going on, you can even become anemic.
Complications can arise especially if malaria is not treated quickly. It can attack the brain. It can kill by causing breathing or pulmonary problems. Sometimes the complications can lead to organ failure.
Even after recovering from a bout of malaria, you can feel sick and weak for quite some time — weeks even.
Malaria can be treated, but it has to be treated promptly. There are a lot of anti-malarial drugs available, but I’m not going to mention the names of drugs here because I am not a doctor, but your doctor will let you know.
Where malaria is endemic
I mentioned earlier that there are some regions of the world where malaria is endemic. Those areas are countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, that is, the regions of Africa below the Sahara Desert.
You can also find this pest of a parasite in Southeast Asia, South America, the Caribbean and the Middle East.
Some people have asked if malaria is contagious. The answer is no. It is not. You can’t get malaria from someone who has it. The only way you can get malaria is by being bitten by an infected female anopheles mosquito, or by an infected blood transfusion, or passed on to an unborn child by an infected mother, or through an organ transplant.
So what can you do?
Is there a way to prevent malaria? Well, there are some things you can do to reduce your chances of getting malaria.
Follow health guidelines. Check with your doctor or travel clinic. Let them know that you’ll be traveling to a country where malaria is endemic. Your doctor will likely give you a prescription for an anti-malarial drug. Most times, the medicine has to be taken a few days before you travel, every day during your visit, and for several days after you return home.
But what if you didn’t get a prescription for antimalarial medication before you left for your trip? In this case, chances are, you can purchase anti-malarial drugs sold in clinics and pharmacies in the country you visit. I know that this is the case in Nigeria and Ghana.
So yes, you can get the medicines in the country you visit, but you have to be very careful where you buy medicines when you travel abroad anywhere. The U.S. has stringent standards and regulations when it comes to drug manufacturing and sales, and I am sure that other countries do too, but I cannot vouch for those countries.
It’s always best to get the medication in advance of travel. If you are in the U.S. just get the medication before you leave.
Other than medication, what can you do to minimize your chances of getting malaria? Here are some options. Try to sleep under mosquito nets in rooms where there are no screens on the windows. Stay in hotels, air BnBs and guest houses that have screened windows.
You can also spray mosquito repellent in the rooms before you go to bed. Spray the bedroom, close it off and then leave the room for some time, at least for an hour, before going to bed.
You can wear shirts or blouses with long sleeves and trousers or long skirts or dresses. You want to cover up as much of your bare skin as possible, especially in the evenings.
You can spray your clothes and skin with mosquito repellent specially made to be applied to fabric or directly on the skin, if you are comfortable doing so.
Following these precautionary measures will significantly lower your risk of getting malaria during your trip, leaving you free to stay healthy and enjoy your trip.
Do yourself a favor
So if you are traveling to any country where malaria is endemic, please do yourself a favor, see your doctor or travel clinic personnel before you travel, get anti-malarial medication prescribed and take it as prescribed. Trust me. You don’t want to get sick with malaria while you are on vacation and far away from home.
For more detailed information about malaria, check out the CDC’s Malaria FAQs: https://www.cdc.gov/malaria/about/faqs.html, and also more information for travelers https://www.cdc.gov/malaria/travelers/index.html.
So that’s it for now, my friends. Until next time, stay safe and be happy. Bye for now.