Q: I’m dreaming of future travel… and newly aware of infectious disease threats. The CDC says there may be malaria where we want to go?! What do I need to know about malaria?
A: Yup. COVID-19 has brought new attention to all the infectious diseases that threaten human health all the time, and malaria ranks high as one of the worst.
More than 229 million people worldwide got malaria in 2019, and around 409,000 people died. Two-thirds of those were kids under age 5–the most vulnerable group. Your best protection from malaria is to avoid mosquito bites.
Malaria is caused by a parasite carried by mosquitoes. It causes high fever, chills, and extreme fatigue and lethargy, and is life-threatening when it’s severe.
Malaria was eliminated in the United States in the 1940’s, but it is very common during the wet season in equatorial places all around the globe. The mosquito which carries malaria lives in warm climates, and as temperatures climb, the range of those mosquitoes is also expanding. In addition, globalization means that lots of people are exposed to malaria when they travel to more tropical places.
A recent CDC report detailed the number of malaria cases identified in the United States in 2019. Bad news: It’s going up. “The number of malaria cases diagnosed in the United States has been increasing since the mid-1970s; in 2017, the number of cases reported [2,161] was the highest in 45 years, surpassing the previous peak of 2,078 confirmed cases reported in 2016.” The vast majority of these cases got malaria traveling to equatorial places where malaria is endemic.
Malaria is preventable. Your best prevention is to avoid getting bit by mosquitoes! Wear insect repellent properly. Wear clothing treated with the long-acting insect repellant permethrin, and wear long pants and long sleeves. Where malaria is common, it helps a lot to sleep under a net treated with insect repellant. There are also malaria prevention drugs available, and you can talk to your clinician about those before you travel.