The Disease:Malaria Disease

Q. What is malaria?

A. Malaria is a serious and sometimes fatal disease caused by a parasite. Patients with malaria typically are very sick with high fevers, shaking chills, and flu-like illness. Four kinds of malaria parasites can infect humans: Plasmodium falciparum, P. vivax, P. ovale, and P. malariae. Infection with any of the malaria species can make a person feel very ill; infection with P. falciparum, if not promptly treated, may be fatal. Although malaria can be a fatal disease, illness and death from malaria are largely preventable.

Q. Is malaria a common disease?

A. Yes. The World Health Organization estimates that each year 300-500 million cases of malaria occur and more than 1 million people die of malaria. About 1,300 cases of malaria are diagnosed in the United States each year. The vast majority of cases in the United States are in travelers and immigrants returning from malaria-risk areas, many from sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian subcontinent.

Q. Is malaria a serious disease?

A. Yes. Malaria is a leading cause of death and disease worldwide, especially in developing countries. Most deaths occur in young children. For example, in Africa, a child dies from malaria every 30 seconds. Because malaria causes so ` much illness and death, the disease is a great drain on many national economies. Since many countries with malaria are already among the poorer nations, the disease maintains a vicious cycle of disease and poverty.

Q. Wasn't malaria eradicated years ago?

A. No, not in all parts of the world. Malaria has been eradicated from many developed countries with temperate climates. However, the disease remains a major health problem in many developing countries, in tropical and subtropical parts of the world. An eradication campaign was started in the 1950s, but it failed globally because of problems including the resistance of mosquitoes to insecticides used to kill them, the resistance of malaria parasites to drugs used to treat them, and administrative issues. In addition, the eradication campaign never involved most of Africa, where malaria is the most common.

Q. If I live in the United States, can I still get malaria?

A. Malaria was eradicated from the United States in the early 1950s. However, malaria is common in many developing countries and travelers who visit these areas risk getting malaria. Returning travelers and arriving immigrants could also reintroduce the disease in the United States if they are infected with malaria when they return. The mosquito that transmits malaria, Anopheles, is found throughout much of the United States. If local mosquitoes bite an infected person, those mosquitoes can, in turn, infect local residents (introduced malaria).

Where Malaria Occurs:

Q. Where does malaria occur?

A. Malaria typically is found in warmer regions of the world -- in tropical and subtropical countries. Higher temperatures allow the Anopheles mosquito to thrive. Malaria parasites, which grow and develop inside the mosquito, need warmth to complete their growth before they are mature enough to be transmitted to humans.

Malaria occurs in over 100 countries and territories. More than 40% of the world s population is at risk. Large areas of Central and South America, Hispaniola (the Caribbean island that is divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Oceania are considered malaria-risk areas.

Yet malaria does not occur in all warm climates. For example, economic development and public health efforts have eliminated malaria from the southern United States, southern Europe, Taiwan, Singapore, and all of the Caribbean islands (except Hispaniola). Some Pacific islands have no malaria because Anopheles mosquitoes are not found there.

Q. Why is malaria so common in Africa?

A. In Africa south of the Sahara, the principal malaria mosquito, Anopheles gambiae, transmits malaria very efficiently. The type of malaria parasite most often found, Plasmodium falciparum, causes severe, potentially fatal disease. Lack of resources and political instability can prevent the building of solid malaria control programs. In addition, malaria parasites are increasingly resistant to antimalarial drugs, presenting one more barrier to malaria control in that continent.