Everything You Need to Know About Malaria Prevention
A guide to the vaccines and medicines travelers may need to have.
Malaria — a menace to travelers visiting sub-Saharan Africa, parts of South America, and South Pacific islands like Papua New Guinea — is carried by mosquitoes infected with a specific parasite. When the mosquito bites a human, the disease can be transmitted.
Like with yellow fever, it’s impossible to tell which mosquito is infected, and which isn’t.
Symptoms of Malaria
In 99 percent of the cases, malaria is contracted from a mosquito during a visit abroad. In a few very rare instances, individuals have actually caught malaria after being bitten by a mosquito in the United States. (Frighteningly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledges that while malaria has not been a serious issue in the U.S. for decades, there is always the possibility that it could be reintroduced back into the country.)
Referred to by the CDC as a “serious disease,” malaria can affect the entire body — chills, fever, and flu-like symptoms develop within 7 to 14 days of exposure. About 900,000 people die every year from malaria.
In the U.S., a majority of those who are diagnosed with malaria are travelers who have spent time in Africa, Latin America, Asia and the South Pacific. If you get back from a trip and start to display any of these symptoms, you’ll want to seek medical help immediately.
Related: What You Need to Know About Vaccines
Malaria cases are divided into two groups. There's "uncomplicated malaria,” in which symptoms appear every other day in stages. Shivering, fever, headaches, vomiting, and sweating are all hallmarks of this type of malaria — and can, unfortunately, be confused with the common flu.
The second category is much more severe, and can involve seizures, anemia, acute respiratory distress syndrome, and acute kidney failure. These, however, only happen when a patient is already suffering from organ failure or blood abnormalities.
Antimalarial medicine has been around for centuries. But there is no malaria vaccine.
Instead, travelers rely heavily on several prevention tactics. First, there are traditional mosquito avoidance measures: always stay screened-in, wear protective clothing, spray bed nets with Permethrin, and use bug spray with DEET (seriously).
Second, travelers can purchase chemoprophylaxis, or malaria pills. Before traveling, it’s a good idea to consult the CDC’s index — along with your primary doctor — on which medication might best suit your itinerary. Even when antimalarial pills come recommended (say, for a trip to Macchu Pichu in Peru, or for a Kenyan safari) some travelers opt not to take them.
Side effects can range from an upset stomach to photosensitivity, insomnia, or even issues with pregnancy. Others may not want to deal with the regimen of taking pills before, during, and after a trip. As your doctor will tell you, the choice is entirely yours.
Once you’ve sorted through the options and chosen a medication that works for you, you’ll need a prescription from your doctor. Malaria pills are generally not covered by insurance, and the price can vary widely, from just $20 up to $260 per pack. Pills should always be purchased in the United States, as the CDC warns that counterfeit malaria pills are sometimes sold in foreign countries.
Malaria pills can be found in pharmacies, public medical centers, and places like Passport Health, which specializes in health services for travelers