Imagine that your family has planned a vacation to Nigeria. You’re excited to experience the culture, try new foods, see wildlife, and meet new people. A couple of weeks before the trip, your parents take you to the doctor to get shots to prevent you from catching diseases while abroad. During your appointment, your doctor also recommends you take antimalarial tablets to reduce your chance of contracting malaria. But what exactly is malaria and why is it so dangerous?
Malaria is a mosquito-borne illness common in tropical regions around the equator. It is especially common in Africa, with 94% of cases coming from sub-saharan Africa. Your doctor wanted to make sure that you didn’t contract this disease while in Nigeria, because it can have serious effects on your health.
Malaria is a disease caused by a parasite that has entered a person’s bloodstream through a mosquito bite. The parasite is typically transmitted through the saliva of an Anopheles mosquito. While it is treatable, malaria can lead to fatigue, nausea, fever, and in severe cases, seizures, comas, and death. In areas where malaria is prevalent, it is a leading cause of death, particularly among young children, pregnant women, and visitors who don’t have immunity. Someone infected once is more prone to being re-infected in the future.
Malaria has been around for all of human history, but Hippocrates formally described the disease in the 5th century BCE. In the early 20th century, scientists discovered that it was transmitted through mosquitoes. As a result of globalization due to World War II, many Americans came into contact with the disease. This launched what is now the CDC’s effort to eradicate malaria from the US and abroad. Around this time, antimalarial drugs were developed. They work by killing the parasite when it enters the bloodstream, before it causes disease. As a result of this discovery, the US was able to eradicate the disease within their borders by 1951. This prompted the World Health Organization’s effort to eradicate malaria globally in 1955. The campaign worked well for a few decades, but environmental degradation brought about new strains, which thwarted WHO’s eradication efforts. While their new goal is to control the disease, half the world’s population remains at risk for Malaria.
There are around 229 million cases and 409,000 deaths annually due to Malaria. This burden is disproportionately felt by the poorest individuals in low income countries. This is in large part due to barriers in access to affordable healthcare. Most strains of malaria are preventable and treatable, however the cost of treatment can trap families in cycles of poverty. As a result, Malaria is the fourth leading cause of death for children in low income countries.
Beyond individual burden, malaria harms the economic growth of countries where it is prevalent. Malaria control initiatives makeup 1.3% of Africa’s GDP, posing a substantial economic burden. Furthermore, much of the healthcare spending in these nations goes towards malaria treatment, taking resources away from other diseases. As a result, these countries struggle getting out of poverty. In the late 1900s, there was even evidence of some malarious countries with negative economic growth.
Funding for malaria control measures has increased significantly in recent years, yet half of the world's population remains at risk for infection. Reducing the risk of physical illness is one of the main pillars required for social and economic development. Unfortunately, many countries trying to achieve a more stable economy and better standards of living face difficulties because of diseases such as malaria. Even if you do not live in a place where malaria poses a threat, it’s essential to recognize that other countries’ development can improve international relations and allow for more global collaboration.
It’s important to know the preventative measures to take just in case you do end up taking that trip to Nigeria. Take the antimalarial medication prescribed by your doctor, bring a mosquito net, and use insect repellent frequently! Lastly, stay informed so you know what to look out for.