Malaria is a preventable disease – but millions of people around the world still contract it every year, with hundreds of thousands of those people dying as a result. Most of those deaths are of African children.
Here’s what you need to know about the illness on April 25, World Malaria Day.
History of malaria
The word “malaria” means “bad air” in Italian, and has been in use since the early 18th century. The disease itself, however, is believed to go back at least several thousand years. Ancient Chinese medical documents describe symptoms of malaria, including one dating to 2700 BCE, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In ancient Greece, in the 4th century BCE, malaria was responsible for affecting the populations of different city-states. The famous physician Hippocrates, one of the most notable figures in ancient medicine, was one of the people to record its symptoms.
According to the World Health Organization, there were about 216 million cases of malaria in 2016—roughly 445,000 of which were fatal. Africa is hit the hardest: About 90 percent of the cases occurred in the African region of the WHO’s coverage. A lot of those happened in sub-Saharan Africa specifically.
The signs of malaria include, most notably, chills and a fever. People who are infected may also experience sweating, diarrhea, vomiting, a headache and other body aches. Symptoms usually crop up in the first few weeks after a patient has been bitten by a carrier mosquito. In serious cases, malaria can cause complications like organ failure; hypoglycemia; anemia; brain swelling; and fluid build-up in the lungs.
“In countries where cases of malaria are infrequent, these symptoms may be attributed to influenza, a cold, or other common infections, especially if malaria is not suspected,” the CDC says.
Ways malaria spreads
A parasite transmitted to a human through a mosquito bite is what causes the infection in the majority of cases. But people can also acquire malaria through a blood transfusion. A pregnant mother can also pass on malaria to her baby, while drug users can spread the disease by sharing hypodermic needles.
How to prevent it
Although there is no approved vaccine for malaria, there are methods for preventing a bite from an infected mosquito. Those include sleeping under a mosquito net, spraying your home and clothes with insecticide or insect repellant and wearing long sleeves and pants between sunset and sunrise.
Antimalarial drugs are also often used as a preventive measure when people travel to tropical areas, where there is an increased risk of infection.