The Malaria Mosquito
There are four types of malaria, and in Kenya, you have the ‘malaria tropica’ type. Malaria is transmitted by the hungry female mosquito in search of a blood meal to lay eggs. That annoying buzzing sound above your head in a warm hotel room? That’s the lady mosquito looking for your blood. When this lady bites you, she leaves behind a tiny parasite called plasmodium. Then, she takes off again. If another mosquito comes along and bites you, you pass the parasite on to the mosquito.
The uninvited guest, the parasite, settles comfortably in your liver and starts multiplying rapidly. After a week or so, this parasite bursts open: all the little parasites enter your bloodstream, and you become extremely ill. More on that in a moment. The malaria mosquito, Anopheles, is a sluggish and slow mosquito. Their bites often itch less than those of other mosquitoes. You primarily encounter them at sunrise and sunset.
Malaria in history
The word “malaria” comes from Latin: “mal aria” means bad air. This refers to the foul odours often present in swamps. Mosquitoes thrive in damp marshes, which is why malaria was also known as swamp fever. Swamp fever used to be prevalent worldwide. Yes, until 1970, the disease was occasionally active in the Netherlands, especially in Zeeland and on the Wadden Islands, where the Anopheles mosquito was prevalent.
In 2010, 20% of child mortality in the developing world was attributed to malaria. An estimated 400,000 people worldwide die from this disease each year, and there are 250 million infections annually. It’s no wonder that the mosquito is the deadliest animal in the world.
Malaria, the disease and treatment
Okay, so malaria makes you very sick. Fever, muscle pain, headache, nausea; it resembles a severe case of the flu. It often starts as a common cold, but quickly turns into a severe illness. Therefore, be alert if you feel unwell: untreated, malaria can be deadly. If you’ve been in an area where malaria is a possibility and you develop a fever, always seek medical attention, and make it clear that you’ve been in a malaria-prone area. A simple test can provide clarity within minutes. A small blood sample is taken from your thumb and tested.
If you are pregnant, you should be extra cautious. Malaria can cause preterm birth, and pregnant women are extremely vulnerable to malaria complications. We, therefore, advise caution if you are pregnant and recommend avoiding extremely high-risk areas.
If you are diagnosed with malaria, you will be prescribed Coartem (Lumefantrine) for 14 days. This medication stops the parasite from multiplying and destroys the red blood cells hijacked by the parasites. Often, people start feeling better quickly (even within a few hours) when they begin taking the medication. However, recovery takes a toll on your body, and it can sometimes take months before you are back to your old self; your system takes a significant hit!
All in all, malaria is treatable. Nevertheless, there are forms of malaria where the parasite doesn’t entirely disappear, and you can get malaria from the same infection later on. People still die from malaria because Coartem is costly, and you need to take it for a minimum of two weeks. Not everyone can afford it. That’s the harsh reality.
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Malaria and research
Tafenoquine, that’s the name of the newest malaria medication! It’s a pill that you take seven days after being bitten, and it clears the parasite from the liver. It’s cheaper than Coartem and could be a promising successor in the fight against malaria. Tafenoquine is an American invention and is already available over the counter in the United States.
Malaria research in the Netherlands
In the Netherlands, there is also research underway for a malaria medication. It’s a weakened live vaccine made from genetically modified parasites. “Genetic modification has been happening for decades, but not with parasites. We are the first to do this in Europe,” says Robert Sauerwein, a researcher at Radboud UMC and LUMC. Previous attempts have been made, but the people involved in those trials contracted malaria.
So, there’s quite a bit of progress in the field of medication, and perhaps, one day, we’ll have a malaria-free world, which would be fantastic! However, it’s crucial that everyone becomes malaria-free because, as mentioned, people can spread the disease through another mosquito bite.
Malaria is indeed a terrifying disease, and unfortunately, it has led to numerous myths:
- First and foremost, homeopathic remedies or drinking gallons of gin and tonic (though enjoyable) won’t prevent you from getting malaria. Sometimes you’re just lucky, and sometimes you’re not.
- It’s never been proven, so it’s a myth that taking preventive malaria medication complicates recovery if you still get infected. Both Coartem and Tafenoquine work just fine if you’re taking one of these drugs. Moreover, the disease is still correctly identified through testing.
- You cannot contract malaria from another person, only from a mosquito.
- It’s not true that malaria is present throughout all of East Africa. Above 1,700 meters (such as Nairobi), malaria is exceedingly rare. Also, along the coast north of Mombasa extending into Eritrea and around Naivasha, Elementaita, and Mount Kenya, malaria has been scarce for many years.
Prevention of Malaria
Wearing protective clothing with long sleeves and pants as well as socks after sunset is advisable. Use DEET 30% anti-mosquito spray and apply it to exposed areas, such as your face, neck, hands, and ankles. Deet can be somewhat toxic, so avoid contact with your lips, eyes, and any open or irritated areas on your body. Do not apply DEET to children’s hands to prevent it from coming into contact with their mouth or eyes. Avoid using DEET during pregnancy. Spray your bedroom with an anti-mosquito spray like Doom, preferably with air conditioning, or use a fan to keep mosquitoes away, as they dislike moving air. Sleep under an impregnated mosquito net for added protection.
You can take Malarone (prophylaxis), which makes it much more difficult for the parasite to settle in the liver. Even if you are not feeling well, there are Plasmodium parasites that are not deterred by Malarone and can still make you sick. However, the risk of contracting malaria is significantly reduced when using Malarone.