Malaria: Symptoms, treatment, and prevention

Malaria is a life-threatening mosquito-borne blood disease. The Anopheles mosquito transmits it to humans

The parasites in mosquitos that spread malaria belong to the Plasmodium genus. Over 100 types of Plasmodium parasite can infect a variety of species. Different types replicate at different rates, changing how quickly the symptoms escalate, and the severity of the disease.

Five types of Plasmodium parasite can infect humans. These occur in different parts of the world. Some cause a more severe type of malaria than others.

Once an infected mosquito bites a human, the parasites multiply in the host’s liver before infecting and destroying red blood cells.

In some places, early diagnosis can help treat and control malaria. However, some countries lack the resources to carry out effective screening.

Currently, no vaccine is available for use in the United States, although one vaccine has a license in Europe.

In the early 1950s, advances in treatment eliminated malaria from the U.S. However, between 1,500 and 2,000 cases still occur each year, mostly in those who have recently traveled to malaria-endemic areas.

Symptoms

Doctors divide malaria symptoms into two categories: Uncomplicated and severe malaria.

Uncomplicated malaria

The Anopheles mosquito passes on malaria.
Malaria is passed on by the Anopheles mosquito.

A doctor would give this diagnosis when symptoms are present, but no symptoms occur that suggest severe infection or dysfunction of the vital organs.

This form can become severe malaria without treatment, or if the host has poor or no immunity.

Symptoms of uncomplicated malaria typically last 6 to 10 hours and recur every second day.

Some strains of the parasite can have a longer cycle or cause mixed symptoms.

As symptoms resemble those of flu, they may remain undiagnosed or misdiagnosed in areas where malaria is less common.

In uncomplicated malaria, symptoms progress as follows, through cold, hot, and sweating stages:

a sensation of cold with shivering

fever, headaches, and vomiting

seizures sometimes occur in younger people with the disease

sweats, followed by a return to normal temperature, with tiredness

In areas where malaria is common, many people recognize the symptoms as malaria and treat themselves without visiting a doctor.

Severe malaria

In severe malaria, clinical or laboratory evidence shows signs of vital organ dysfunction.

Symptoms of severe malaria include:

fever and chills

impaired consciousness

prostration, or adopting a prone position

multiple convulsions

deep breathing and respiratory distress

abnormal bleeding and signs of anemia

clinical jaundice and evidence of vital organ dysfunction

Severe malaria can be fatal without treatment.

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Treatment

Treatment aims to eliminate the Plasmodium parasite from the bloodstream.

Those without symptoms may be treated for infection to reduce the risk of disease transmission in the surrounding population.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends artemisinin-based combination therapy (ACT) to treat uncomplicated malaria.

Artemisinin is derived from the plant Artemisia annua, better known as sweet wormwood. It rapidly reduces the concentration of Plasmodium parasites in the bloodstream.

Practitioners often combine ACT with a partner drug. ACT aims to reduce the number of parasites within the first 3 days of infection, while the partner drugs eliminate the rest.

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