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Facts About...

Malaria


What is it?

Malaria is caused by parasites that live in mosquitoes. Malaria is endemic (i.e., constantly occurring) in most of sub-Saharan Africa and New Guinea; in large areas of South Asia, Southeast Asia, Oceania, Haiti, Central and South America; and in parts of Mexico, the Dominican Republic, North Africa and the Middle East. Canadians who travel to these areas can get infected with malaria.

There are four parasites that cause malaria: Plasmodium falciparum, Plasmodium vivax, Plasmodium ovale, and Plasmodium malariae. Infection with Plasmodium falciparum can be fatal.

How is it spread?

Malaria is usually transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected mosquito. It is also possible to spread malaria in the blood supply if an infected person donates blood.

What do I look for?

Symptoms of malaria include fever, headache, nausea, vomiting, muscle pain and malaise. Rigors (severe shakes or muscle spasms) and chills often occur. Malaria can also affect the brain and may lead to personality changes, confusion, lethargy and seizures. The severity of the illness depends on the species of the malaria parasite causing the infection.

How is it treated?

Seek medical attention as soon as possible for any unexplained fever that occurs during or after travel to an area where malaria occurs. Malaria can progress extremely rapidly from no symptoms to severe and complicated malaria, with death occurring within 36 to 48 hours. The symptoms of malaria are not specific; an accurate diagnosis requires a blood test. You should request that a blood film (thick and thin films) be examined for malaria parasites. Prompt treatment for malaria can be life-saving.

If you develop a fever during travel to a malaria-endemic area or within three months after returning from an area where malaria occurs, seek medical advice immediately and inform your physician of your recent travel.

How can I protect myself?

If you are traveling to an area that has malaria, you should obtain an individual risk assessment with a travel medicine physician or your family physician to determine both your risk of exposure to malaria AND your need for appropriate preventive anti-malarial medication.

In general, two important measures can help prevent malaria infection: avoiding mosquito bites and using EFFECTIVE anti-malaria medication.

Prevent bites:

  • Stay in well-screened, air-conditioned accommodation
  • Sleep under insecticide-treated bed nets
  • Wear light-coloured, long-sleeved shirts and long pants to avoid exposed skin
  • Use DEET-based repellents on exposed skin in concentrations up to 35%, following the manufacturer’s directions

Use anti-malaria medication:
While no vaccine is available, effective anti-malarial medications lower your risk of developing malaria. However, they do not provide 100% protection against the disease. The type of anti-malarial medication you should use depends on the areas you will visit and any health conditions you might have. See a travel medicine clinic or your family physician to determine which anti-malarial medication is right for you.

I just returned from a Malaria-endemic area. Should I be tested for malaria?

Keep an eye on any symptoms you develop for up to three months from return from a malaria-endemic region. If you develop an unexplained fever or symptoms then see your doctor. If you do not have symptoms for malaria, there is no treatment or testing required.

Where can I get more information?

Visit the Public Health Agency of Canada's Travel Medicine Program website for more information about malaria and other travel health issues: www.travelhealth.gc.ca

Durham Region Health Department, Environmental Help Line 905-723-3818 or 1-888-777-9613

April 22, 2013