Traveling to a country where malaria is a risk

Malaria

Heading to a tropical country? Have you checked whether your destination is affected by malaria? According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly half of the world’s population is at risk of malaria and 30,000 international travelers are infected annually. Caused by parasites which are transmitted to humans through mosquito bites, the disease can be a killer. Though there currently is no available vaccine, some precautions make the chances of getting malaria much slimmer. To avoid the disease, be aware of how it occurs.

What is malaria?

Being bitten by a few hungry mosquitos during a summer evening sounds quite common and harmful. But when traveling abroad, depending on the country of destination, mosquitos can become a real nightmare.

Plasmodiom parasites trigger malaria

Dusk and dawn are the times female Anopheles mosquitos mainly bite humans, sometimes transmitting a parasite called Plasmodium. Malaria may be caused by four types of Plasmodium species. Plasmodium falciparum is not only the most common but also the most deadly specie. Risk of infection is more or less high depending on the season. During the rainy season for instance, the amount of malaria cases increases. Immunity also influences transmission and severity of malaria: a grown up person who has always lived in a malarious region tends to be less likely of being too seriously infected. In Africa, the disease especially affects children below five years old.

Where is malaria a threat?

Malaria is a risk in about one hundred tropical and subtropical countries. Africa is the continent which has the highest malaria mortality rate: in 2013, 90% of the deaths due to the disease occurred in Africa. Nigeria, Ivory Coast, United Republic of Tanzania, Uganda, Mozambique are some of the countries in which there were the most malaria cases in 2013. Nevertheless, there are several malaria risk zones outside the African continent: the disease also affects certain areas of South America, South-East Asia and the Middle East. Infection risks always are at their highest in rural areas, whatever the country.

Malaria symptoms

Do you come from a malaria-free country? You could easily mistake the first symptoms of malaria with those of the flu. 10 to 15 days after being bitten by an infected mosquito, the following symptoms can appear:

  • fever,
  • chills,
  • headaches,
  • vomiting.

If not treated, the Plasmodium falciparum malaria can very quickly lead to serious illness and death. Severe forms of the disease may cause:

  • very high fever,
  • convulsions,
  • severe anemia,
  • respiratory distress.

Depending on which Plasmodium specie has been transmitted through the mosquito bite, malaria symptoms may appear well after leaving the malarious region. It’s been two months since you got back from Kenya and you suddenly come down with quite a high fever…You absolutely need to see a doctor immediately so that you may receive prompt treatment if a malaria breakthrough is diagnosed. This is a curable disease!

How to prevent malaria

During a trip to a country showing high risks for malaria, there are a few steps to take to avoid infection. Although preventive measures often are effective, there is no way to ensure total protection against the disease: if you happened to need to see a doctor or go through some medical tests, an adequate travel insurance solution will cover your healthcare expenses abroad.

Taking antimalarial drugs

To get preventive treatment against malaria, visit your doctor before you leave: he will prescribe the right medication. The type of antimalarial drug you will take partly depends on which country you are heading to: in some parts of the world, the parasite has developed resistance to some of the drugs. Usually, you need to begin taking the medication either on the day before departure or upon arrival in the malarious area. Once you head back home, treatment must be continued for one to four weeks.

Avoiding mosquito bites

It’s between sunset and sunrise that you really need to pay attention. Are you planning a night-time outing? Mosquitoes will be out too: wear long sleeves and full-length pants and spray clothes with insect-repellent. During the night, sleep under a mosquito net (spray repellent on net before you use it). You cannot eliminate all risks of getting malaria but there’s a lot you can do to reduce possibility of infection: don’t let your tropical travel turn into a mosquito nightmare!

To find out more about malaria:

To see which parts of the world are the most affected by malaria, take a look at the World Malaria Risk Chart on the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers website.

Date of publication Sep 28 2015

Other articles on this subject

Yellow fever and the International certificate of vaccination
Trips and Vaccines: What to Look For
Air travel and jet lag
Travelling when pregnant
Health tip: how to avoid food poisoning
Before the departure: medical precautions
Health and travel: forewarned is forearmed!