It’s likely that throughout all of human history, some form of malaria has been infecting and causing problems for our species. There are records of malaria outbreaks in China 5,000 years ago, and it probably played a part in the decline of Roman influence in Europe. The word malaria literally means “bad air” in medieval Italian because with no understanding of diseases, people of the time believed that the disease came to strike them down out of the night air, like a grim reaper. Little did they know that the disease was a protozoan parasite carried in the bellies of those annoying little anopheles mosquitoes they were constantly swatting. Knowledge of that link wasn’t verified until the turn of the twentieth century, and it has since been used to wipe out malaria in many areas of the developed world. However, it’s still a major problem in certain areas; every year hundreds of millions of people are infected, and hundreds of thousands die—mostly children in Africa. People who are constantly exposed can grow a certain level of immunity, but if you’re a Western traveler to a malarious region, you need to take care and follow a few guidelines.
Malaria is caused by a protozoan parasite that gets passed from infected people to female mosquitoes and then back to other people via their bite. Once inside of you, it multiplies in your liver and then infects your red blood cells. If not taken care of, the infection can disrupt blood flow to your vital organs.
These symptoms generally appear 10‒15 days after the mosquito bite:
- Joint pain
Malaria prevention via chemoprophylaxis is a necessity for those traveling into malaria-prone regions. If you are planning to travel overseas, you will need to check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for immunization requirements. Also, see a doctor or travel medicine provider to get drugs you will need to stay safe and malaria-free. There are a variety of medicines and some resistant strains of malaria. Medications are usually a daily or weekly pill that may need to be taken before, during, and after your time in the malaria risk area. Symptoms might not appear for several weeks.
Mosquito netting and protective clothing are important and simple solutions for preventing mosquito bites. Since the species of mosquito responsible for malaria transmission mostly feeds from dusk to dawn, when most of us sleep, the most obvious way to prevent the disease is to use one of the wide variety of bed canopies available. Very few of the people most at risk (African children) can afford such an item, as they range from thirty dollars to several hundred. They are going to prevent mosquito bites better than nothing, and the models that are coated in an insecticide are even better.
Personal and home insecticides can be used to deter and kill mosquitoes. If you must go outside in a mosquito ridden area during peak times, you will obviously want to be using a mosquito repellent. If the climate doesn’t allow for protective attire, be especially sure to cover bare skin with a mosquito spray that contains high amounts of the chemical DEET. It is also common to coat the interior walls and surfaces of homes with insecticides such as pyrethrins, which may sound dangerous, but it’s a trade off to avoid the risk of a malaria infection.
Draining areas of standing water and treating swamplands has greatly reduced mosquito populations. In order for malaria to exist in human populations, a couple of situations must exist. There must be an adequate population of people living close together. There also needs to be standing water nearby for mosquitoes to breed, and the malaria parasite needs to be present in one of its hosts. Humans will always live in close proximity, so we are left eliminating and poisoning the breeding ground of the mosquito. This has eliminated malaria throughout the Western world, but it’s harder to implement in tropical zones.
If you are infected, you need to be aware of the symptoms and receive malaria medications as soon as possible. If you find yourself experiencing a fever or a repeating cycle of coldness, stiffness, fever, and sweating, it is very likely that you have contracted the disease. However, there are other diseases that cause fevers, so assuming you are near a hospital, it’s likely that your doctors will perform a blood test to confirm. Many of the same drugs that are used to prevent malaria are also used in curing it, including quinine, chloroquine, amodiaquine, pyrimethamine, sulfanomides, doxycycline, and clindamycin.
Malaria Recommendations for Travelers
The ABCD mnemonic for malaria prevention is:
- Awareness of the malaria risk in the country you are visiting.
- Bite prevention via clothing, repellents, and bed netting.
- Chemoprophylaxis will help you prevent infection with anti-malarial drugs.
- Diagnosis and treatment of the infection as quickly as possible.
Malaria Remedies: A History
Malaria needs to be treated by a physician, but the types of anti-malarial drugs used by modern medicine have an interesting history steeped in ancient tradition. Quinine is the active drug found in the bark of the Cinchona tree, which was given to European explorers and Jesuits by the native people of Peru in the early 1600s. Many modern malarial drugs are synthesized variations of quinine, but in many cases it is still more cost effective to extract it from the Cinchona bark or other plants. In the United States it is available as a prescription drug or in very low dosages in tonic water.