Malaria is all the buzz (ha!) during March, which is Stomping Out Malaria month here in Peace Corps. This month I’ll bringing you information about malaria, malaria prevention, and the challenges faced by Zambians and volunteers living in malaria endemic countries.
First, what the heck IS malaria? Where does malaria come from? What is it, exactly? A worm? A parasite? A virus? This week, we’re taking a look at malaria facts to make you, dear readers, malaria experts. Trust me, it’s a fascinating party topic and you’ll be all the rage amongst your epidemiology friends!
10 Fast Facts About Malaria
1. Malaria is a parasite borne by the female Anopheles mosquito’s saliva. Anopheles only bite at night, usually between 9pm-5am (they are very timely creatures) and transfer the parasite into humans via a saliva injection that helps blood to flow when they bite you (as if mosquitos couldn’t be any worse, right?). The mosquito isn’t born with the malaria parasite, but rather must receive it from a human host (via sucking your blood) and then share it with its next human victim.
2. There are four types of parasites that cause malaria in humans, but the most deadly is the Plasmodium falciparum parasite (especially in Zambia and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa).
3. Malaria causes over 300 million (yes, that’s 300,000,000 with eight zeros) acute illnesses every year and over 1 million deaths every year. In sub-Saharan Africa, over 90% of those deaths are in children under 5. What does that mean? That means in the time it took you to read this fact (or about every 30 seconds), a child died of malaria. And that’s every 30 seconds.
3. Malaria is a preventable disease. Sleeping under a mosquito net, taking malaria prophylaxis, wearing insect repellant, wearing long sleeves/pants and dark colors, and staying indoors after dark are all methods to avoid contracting malaria. Insecticide treated Nets (ITNS) are the best way for most people to protect against mosquitos and malaria infection. There is no vaccine for malaria.
4. Between 2008 and 2010, a total of 294,000,000 nets were distributed in sub-Saharan Africa in an effort to prevent malaria (CDC Website).
5. The symptoms of malaria can include a rolling fever (typically spiking every 48 hours), severe headache (usually behind the eyes), joint pain, vomiting, and occasionally diarrhea. In severe cases, malaria can cause yellowing skin, seizures, coma, and eventually death. Pregnant women, AIDS patients, children under 5, and people born in countries without endemic malaria (like most Peace Corps volunteers) are especially at risk (Wikipedia). As someone who has had malaria, I can attest that it is not one of those “stay home from work and eat soup” diseases. It, in a word, sucks.
6. Malaria costs Africa more than $12 billion USD annually. It slows economic growth in African countries by 1.3% per year. Don’t think that sounds like much? The compound effect of that economic loss equates to a GDP level up to 32% lower than if malaria had been eradicated in the 1960’s (like it was in the U.S.) (NMCP Strategic Plan).
7. Malaria is very easy to test for. Rapid diagnostic tests (RDT) are available in most clinics and involve a simple finger prick to look for antibodies in the blood. A blood smear can also be done in some places for more definitive testing. RDTs can sometimes be fooled by malaria prophylaxis drugs, reporting no malaria when, in fact, malaria parasites are present in the body.
8. Malaria is curable. The original cure for malaria was quinine, discovered by Jesuit missionaries in Peru in the bark of the cinchona tree hundreds of years ago. In 1897, British army surgeon Ronald Ross figured out where malaria comes from (see Fact #1) and quinine became an effective treatment and prophylaxis (think gin and tonics in British colonized Africa). Since that time, a number of drugs have taken center stage in curing malaria. In sub-Saharan Africa, Coartem is the most widely available drug. Coartem involves 24 pills over the course of 3 days. Unfortunately, Coartem is often given out without testing and taken when someone doesn’t actually have malaria (you’ll notice from Fact #5 that malaria has a lot of the same symptoms of the flu and many other common diseases). If these poor practices continue, the malaria parasite could become resistant to Coartem.
9. There are approximately 2,239 Peace Corps volunteers serving in malaria endemic countries in Africa. Of those volunteers, less than half of them did a malaria intervention project in 2013. Why is that? Well, not all volunteers have the leeway to work with malaria prevention in their program framework. For example, as an aquaculture volunteer my priorities are supposed to be focused on fish farming, pond digging, fingerling production…but not malaria. I have minimal malaria training during my pre-service training, and most of that is focused on keeping myself safe from malaria. Still, malaria is a HUGE problem in Africa and one that we can actually do something about! So, why isn’t every volunteer doing a malaria intervention project? That’s a question I’ll address later this month, so stay tuned.
10. You should care about malaria. For those of us living in the U.S., malaria is a long-forgotten memory. But, did you know that the U.S. used to struggle with malaria? The disease was finally eliminated in the 1950’s (thanks, in part, to the widespread spraying of pesticides like DDT), but between 1500-2000 cases still pop up in the U.S. every year, primarily from tourists and people visiting their home countries who don’t take proper precautions against the disease.
Now, malaria is a scourge across most of Africa and parts of Asia and South America. Malaria causes millions of cases of needless illness and hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. While it might seem like someone else’s problem to those of us who live in non-malarial countries, malaria affects everyone, everywhere. As long as people get sick and die of malaria, that is labor lost, development squashed, and healthcare resources absorbed. Not to mention, of course, the loss of human life.
So, my challenge to you this month: tell someone you know about malaria. Learn more about the disease by following my blog throughout the month of March (you can get this blog emailed to you each week by entering your address in the sidebar!). Donate to malaria research. Ask your favorite PCV friend or family member to tell you more about malaria. Feel to ask questions in the comments or contact me if you want to learn more.
Stay healthy. Fish on.