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What is malaria?

Malaria is an infection of the blood that is carried from person to person by mosquitoes. The disease has been recognised for thousands of years and once was found almost everywhere except in the most northern areas of the world. Malaria has been wiped out in North America, Western Europe and Russia. However, it remains a serious problem in much of the tropical and subtropical world.

Millions of people continue to be infected every year and close to one million of them die. However, around 1,500 people a year are diagnosed with malaria in the UK after returning from abroad.

Malaria symptoms

With malaria you develop a high fever, which comes and goes every other day or few days. How often a fever returns varies with each species of malaria.

  • Many infections do not show this classic pattern of returning fevers at all. In many people the infection will seem more like flu with high fever and body aches.
  • People also will complain of headache, nausea, shaking chills (rigors), sweating and weakness.
  • As the infection progresses the fevers get less severe and you seem to recover. However, the infection can remain in many people for several years, particularly for those with a long history of exposure to malaria.
  • These people can develop some immunity and may be infected for many years while only rarely having symptoms.
  • The different types of malaria each bring on their own complications.
    • P falciparum: You can develop severe haemolytic anaemia (the red blood cells actually break down), kidney failure, coma and death. Treatment is a medical emergency. Drug resistance has become widespread. Current information on disease patterns, prevention for travellers and drug resistance can always be found through a travel health clinic or your GP surgery.
    • P ovale: This species also can cause anaemia, but this infection is rarely life threatening.
    • P vivax: You can develop anaemia and rupture of the spleen, which can become life threatening. People with P vivax or P ovale may relapse several months after the initial illness because of the persistence of dormant forms (called hypnozoites) remaining in the liver. These should be eradicated with medical treatment.
    • P malariae: This infection is rarely life threatening, but a long-standing disease can lead to kidney failure. If untreated, this infection can last throughout your life.
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