Malaria May Be Rare in the U.S., but We Still Need to Be ProactiveProactive Health
By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder
Malaria is said to be one of the deadliest diseases in human history. According to some reports, this disease kills a child under the age of five every two minutes.
You probably already know malaria is caused by mosquitos. But more specifically, it is caused by Plasmodium parasites delivered by the bites of infected female Anopheles mosquitoes. The mosquito gets the parasite by biting someone who already has the disease. There are actually five parasite species that cause malaria in humans:
- Plasmodium falciparum (or P. falciparum)
- Plasmodium malariae (or P. malariae)
- Plasmodium vivax (or P. vivax)
- Plasmodium ovale (or P. ovale)
- Plasmodium knowlesi (or P. knowlesi)
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), P. falciparum and P. vivax are the most threatening.
“Once in a human's bloodstream, the parasite lodges in the liver, burrowing into cells where it feasts and multiplies. After a week or two the plasmodia burst out—around 40,000 replications for each parasite that entered the body,” reports National Geographic.
“Next they target red blood cells, this time repeatedly, until there are billions of parasites in circulation. If this cycle isn't checked, the body starts to fail, because with so many oxygen-carrying red cells being destroyed there are too few left to sustain vital organs.”
Because this disease affects red blood cells, it may cause anemia.
“Malarial anemia is capable of causing severe morbidity and mortality especially in children and pregnant women infected with Plasmodium falciparum” (UpToDate).
Symptoms of malaria are usually flu-like and may include fever, chills, sweats, nausea and vomiting and body aches.
In areas of the world where malaria rates are high, young children and pregnant women are the most vulnerable because young children have not developed immunity to the disease and pregnant women have a compromised immune system due to being pregnant.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that malaria mainly occurs in poor tropical and subtropical areas of the world. In these areas, it is actually the leading cause of illness and death.
“The highest transmission is found in Africa South of the Sahara and in parts of Oceania such as Papua New Guinea,” reports the CDC.
“In many temperate areas, such as western Europe and the United States, economic development and public health measures have succeeded in eliminating malaria. However, most of these areas have Anopheles mosquitoes that can transmit malaria, and reintroduction of the disease is a constant risk.”
Roughly 1,700 cases of malaria are diagnosed in the United States each year. The majority of cases in the United States are found in travelers and immigrants returning from countries where malaria transmission occurs - many from sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
So clearly this is an issue we have to be proactive about especially when we travel to areas of the world where malaria is a common problem.
Back in 2014, a young British student who was volunteering in Kenya contracted malaria and died.
The student was just 21-years-old. When her mother called her on the Sunday before her death, she was in bed and feeling unwell – “despite having had all her injections, and taking tablets to protect against malaria,” according to this report discussing the tragic incident.
There is currently no licensed malaria vaccine.
“The development of a malaria vaccine has faced several obstacles: the lack of a traditional market, few developers, and the technical complexity of developing any vaccine against a parasite. Malaria parasites have a complex life cycle, and there is poor understanding of the complex immune response to malaria infection. Malaria parasites are also genetically complex, producing thousands of potential antigens. Unlike the diseases for which we currently have effective vaccines, exposure to malaria parasites does not confer lifelong protection. Acquired immunity only partially protects against future disease, and malaria infection can persist for months without symptoms of disease,” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)).
But there are antimalarial drugs you can take four to six weeks before travel as a preventative measure. However, there are some people who should probably not take antimalarial drugs, such as those with Glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) deficiency. You might recall that G6PD is a very common genetic disorder, and antimalarial drugs may trigger the destruction of the red blood cells in people with this condition.
But you can also be proactive by doing your best to help prevent mosquito bites by covering your skin with long sleeves and pants, wearing insect repellent, sleeping with a mosquito net and more.
Very recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended the first-line treatment for severe malaria. The drug is called artesunate, and it is recommended that medical professionals in the United States use this drug to treat malaria patients in the U.S.
“The new guidance marks a change in U.S. treatment protocol that became necessary after the only U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved intravenous (IV) antimalarial drug in the United States—quinidine—was discontinued by the maker,” according to this report discussing the new form of treatment.
Per usual, nutrition may play a role.
The interaction between malaria and nutrition is complex and has been the subject of controversy since the early 1950s, according to various studies.
Vitamin A may help reduce malaria-associated morbidity due to this vitamin’s beneficial effects on immune function.
“There appears to be a role for the use of certain micronutrients, especially vitamin A and zinc, for the prevention of malaria in young children,” according to one study.
“However, other essential vitamins such as vitamin E or folic acid may play potentially harmful roles by exacerbating malaria episodes or interfering with antimalarial therapy. Thus, although the use of multiple micronutrients would seem to be an ideal approach to enhancing the nutritional status of young children in malaria-endemic areas, more research is needed to determine the safety and efficacy of this approach.”
This is why we always stress the importance of taking routine nutrient tests and being aware of possible side effects of the various supplements or medications you take. This is necessary to avoid nutritional deficiencies, nutritional excesses and drug interactions.
It is also extremely important to maintain nutritional balance in order to keep your immune system in the best shape possible. This way your body can have the greatest chance of being able to effectively fight diseases such as malaria. If you take a nutrient test and discover you have either too much or too little of a certain nutrient, a competent healthcare professional can work with you to make the necessary dietary changes and recommend quality supplements if needed.
Enjoy your healthy life!
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