Malaria is spread by mosquitoes and is a potentially fatal disease. It is becoming more widespread as it is becoming increasingly resistant to the drugs used to prevent it.
Malaria is caused by the nighttime biting female mosquitoes (as well as by transfusion of blood). When you are bitten your blood carries the parasites into your liver. You will not know you have malaria at this stage.
Once the parasites enter your bloodstream again you will start to experience symptoms. This stage could be from between 1-3 weeks but sometimes even up to a year).
The malarial parasites will enter and destroy your red blood cells causing extremely uncomfortable effects. These can include kidney failure, vomiting and diarrhoea as they destroy your gut and cerebral malaria as they enter your brain.
These latter stages of malaria can progress extremely quickly so it is important to recognise problems early on.
If you do think you have malaria you should treat it very seriously as the quicker you are treated the quicker you can recover. Malaria can be effectively treated with drugs and symptoms will rapidly disappear with little risk of reoccurrence.
Always consult your GP regarding malaria risks.
Where is Malaria present?
If you are backpacking the chances are you will pass through a malarial zone.
The main areas include South and Central America, Africa and most areas in Asia off the main tourist trail. There is generally not a risk in the majorly populated areas or main tourist spots, but always be cautious.
Well before you start travelling should check with your GP, travel health clinic or other agencies to see if you are passing through one of these areas.
You can not rely solely on preventative drugs for protection against malaria as certain regions are becoming increasingly resistant to them.
Mosquitoes are also attracted by the following things
- Body heat
- Chemicals in sweat
- Certain types of clothing
To avoid being bitten by mosquitos you should:
- Cover up with light coloured clothing (long sleeved tops/trousers etc)
- Use insect repellent, DEET (apply to all areas and clothing)
- Use a mosquito net - treated with repellent (air conditioned rooms tend to be insect-free)
- Use burning coils or electric repellents in your room
- Spray the room, bed and net with repellent to remove any hiding mossies
The main preventative drugs used are:
- Chloroquine + proguanil
- Mefloquine (Larium)
These work by killing off the malarial parasites before they are able to cause disease. Due to the lack of consensus about which drug is more effective it will depend where you live or who you speak to regarding which drug to take.
Whichever drug you end up taking you should start taking them before you travel to allow them to build up maximum resistance. This also allows you to see any potential side effects from the drugs.
You need to continue taking your malarial pills for four weeks on your return or exit from a malarial region.
Remember, as with all pills, to take them regularly and after food to minimise the potential side effects.
Most malaria deaths with travellers occur because the diagnosis is delayed.
If you experience any flu-like symptoms during a visit to a recognised malarial area, or within 3 months of leaving one, you should consider the possibility of malaria and have your blood tested by a doctor as soon as possible.