A “Long-Term-Disaster Diseases” post. See the rest in the series here.

by James Hubbard, MD, MPH

Normal red blood cells have light centers. The purplish ones have been infested with malaria parasites.

Normal red blood cells have light centers. The blue ones have been infested with malaria parasites.

Today, April 25, is World Malaria Day.

When my father was a boy in Mississippi, he had malaria. Millions of others did also in the American South in the 1930s. After a few days of the typical fever, teeth-chattering chills, and drenching sweats he got over it. Many did. But many others died. Millions still do—some here in the United States.

We don’t yet have a vaccine for malaria, but we do have effective drugs. Even so, during a long-term disaster, those drugs may not be available. So here are some important facts to know.

What Is Malaria?

Malaria is a disease caused by a parasite that gets into and destroys red blood cells. In addition to fever, chills, and sweats, it can cause jaundice (yellowish skin and dark urine) due to the red-cell breakdown. It can damage your kidneys and cause confusion, seizures, and death.

What Causes Malaria?

Malaria is caused by a parasite that gets into your blood, usually via the bite of a certain mosquito, the female Anopheles.

When the mosquito bites and feeds on the blood of someone with malaria, the parasite infects the mosquito but doesn’t make it sick. When the infected mosquito then bites someone else, it regurgitates the parasite into that new person’s blood. That’s how malaria is spread. It can also be spread through a blood transfusion or transplant from someone with the disease.

In the late 1940s a nationwide eradication program, including using insecticide and getting rid of the mosquito breeding grounds, began. By the early 1950s malaria was officially declared to be eradicated in the U.S.. However, the mosquito was not completely eliminated. It’s still around.

Where Is Malaria Found?

In some tropical and subtropical climates, especially in Africa, malaria is still rampant. In 2013, over 200 million people came down with malaria and over 600,000 people died. Here in the U.S., around 1,500 are treated each year. Many caught it in other countries, but as mentioned above, a few (usually very few) get it from U.S. mosquitoes.

Could Malaria Come Back to Countries Thought to Have Eliminated It?

There are still occasional small outbreaks of malaria in the U.S. Fortunately we have good treatment and there aren’t enough cases for many mosquitoes to get infected and cause a widespread outbreak. Of course, that could change in a prolonged disaster or if, for any reason, our medical system broke down.

How Do We Treat Malaria?

Well, we do have pretty good drugs these days, but if there came a time that those were not available, prevention would become your only defense. That would mean keeping mosquitoes from getting to you.

Put screens on open windows, and use mosquito nets. Applying mosquito repellant on the nets, your clothes, and your skin can also help.

Commercial repellants that contain DEET are the most reliably effective, but be sure to read the potential complications and side effects before using. Some people swear by Avon’s Skin So Soft or other repellants like citronella (the plant, candle, or oil).

Of course, also get rid of standing water near where you live because mosquitoes can breed there.

What About a Vaccine?

Developing an effective and safe malaria vaccine has been a challenge. There’s never been a vaccine for a parasite infection before, and apparently the body’s immunity response to these parasites, which a vaccine would build on, is pretty complicated. But some scientists seem to be getting close. In fact, there are rumors there may be a malaria vaccine within a year or so.


What about you? Have you or anyone you know had any experience with malaria? What were the symptoms? How was it treated?


Photo: Flickr/EdUthman, shared under CC BY 2.0.
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