Malaria: What is it?

Malaria is an infectious disease caused by single-celled parasites carried by female mosquitoes. It affects most of the tropics and results in more than half a million deaths each year. According to the World Health Organisation, there were about 207 million cases of malaria in 2012.

What causes malaria?

Entering the body through a female mosquito?s bite, the parasites flood into the bloodstream and take up residence in the liver where they reproduce by hijacking liver cells. They subsequently move back into the blood, rupturing red blood cells as they reproduce further. Finally, if another mosquito feeds on infected blood, the mosquito collects some of the parasites, ready to infect a new host.

Malaria has afflicted humanity for over 50,000 years, though it took until 1880 for the parasitic cause of the disease to be discovered. It took another 18 years to discover that mosquitoes transmitted the virus between people. Previously it was thought that malaria was caused by the stagnant air that surrounds swamps and marshes – the breeding places of mosquitoes.

Symptoms of malaria

Symptoms of the illness usually take from one to three weeks to appear after infection.  Initially these may appear similarly to the flu, with headaches, muscle pains and fever being common.  Vomiting, jaundice, blood in urine and convulsions can also develop. The most iconic malarial symptom is paroxysm, a cycle of sever chills and shivering followed by high fever, alternating every two days or so.  In extreme cases, coma and neural symptoms, like seizures, can occur, and may even result in death.

Treatment for malaria

Malaria is relatively easy to treat with anti-malarial medications, though resistance in the parasite has lead to the cheaper options no longer being effective. A class of medicine known as artemisinins, taken orally, can cure the majority of malarial infections, though their expense limits availability in developing nations. More severe cases may require intravenous treatment, and admittance to the hospital to manage the symptoms.

What is Malaria?

Prevention, as the saying goes, is usually cheaper than the cure, and while there is no vaccine, some measures can be taken. Especially if you?re only passing through or visiting an area with malaria, some medication, taken regularly, can prevent an infection from taking hold, though the cost involved makes this expensive for people living permanently in such areas. More effective for large populations is controlling the mosquitoes which carry the disease. This can take several forms, including spraying with pesticides, the use of mosquito nets, and even eliminating pools of standing water, which they use to breed. Long term, scientists are seeking to breed mosquitoes to be immune to the parasite themselves, preventing them from carrying the disease and hopefully eradicating it once and for all.

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