What Is Malaria?
Malaria is a potentially fatal disease caused by single-celled parasites of the genus Plasmodium. Malaria is a serious threat if you're travelling to Africa. Here's how to take life-saving action.
Malaria is a potentially fatal disease caused by single-celled parasites of the genus Plasmodium. The disease is transmitted by the female Anopheles mosquito. Female mosquitoes need blood meals in order to mature their eggs. Their mouthparts are especially equipped to pierce the skin in order to find a blood vessel from which to feed. As they pierce the skin, they squirt saliva into the wound, and then drink their fill of blood.
If the blood is infected with Plasmodia, the mosquito will swallow the parasites along with the blood. The sexual forms of the parasites, the gametocytes, will mate in her stomach, and the fertilized female cells then encyst on her stomach wall. The cyst will burst open any time between one and three weeks, and the young parasites will make their way to the salivary glands of the female mosquito.
When she next feeds, she will squirt these young parasites into the blood vessels of her victim, along with her saliva. The parasites will then move through the bloodstream to the liver. Here, they reproduce asexually, then re-enter the bloodstream in a form known as merozoites.
The merozoites enter a number of red blood cells and once again multiply asexually, destroying the red blood cell in the process. They burst out of the destroyed red blood cells after two to three days, and start again. The symptoms of malaria in the victim, most commonly fever and bouts of shivering alternating with sweating, occur when the plasmodia leave the destroyed cells. In fact, the early signs of Malaria look just like cold or 'flu symptoms. Only a blood test can accurately confirm a diagnosis. It's easy to treat Malaria at this early stage.
The attacks of fever will depend on how quickly the Plasmodia multiply in the red blood cells before bursting out. The average period is every 48 hours. Some sexual forms may emerge during the asexual reproductive process, but they neither mate nor multiply in the human body. If the female mosquito bites the victim once again, they will be sucked into her stomach to mate there and start the life cycle once again.
The most serious form of malaria is caused by the Plasmodium falciparum. These parasites burst out every 36 hours, and the symptoms quickly develop from mild fever to severe, often fatal, illness. They enter the small blood vessels and cause blockages, resulting in lung, kidney or liver failure, or a coma if the blockage occurs in the blood vessels of the brain. Only skilled medical techniques can save a life at this stage.
Visitors to areas where malaria is rife should take measures to prevent infection. As mosquitoes are most active at sunset, it makes sense to cover the skin with appropriate clothing, such as long sleeved shirts or blouses that close at the wrist, long trousers or skirts, socks or stockings and shoes. Apply insect repellants to any exposed skin.
During the night, use a mosquito coil or electric mosquito repellant as well as a mosquito net. You can soak or spray the nets with a safe mosquito repellant as well. Visitors should also consider taking anti-malarial medication. Medical advice is essential to find out which drugs are currently effective. A course of medication usual begins before entering to the malarial area and ends some time after.
Prophylaxis, however, is not a guarantee of safety. Anyone entering a malarial area should consult a doctor if they develop symptoms of a mild cold or influenza within seven days of entering an area, or within three months of leaving one. A blood test is the only way to accurately diagnose malaria, and may be negative the first time. If the blood test does yield negative results, take a second test after two or three days to confirm the results.
Malaria can be treated easily in the early stages and sufferers can expect to recover fully, although the disease may recur at any time. Only if the early symptoms are ignored or misunderstood, is malaria fatal.