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Protect Your Health: Malaria Cases Seen in Florida and Texas for the First Time in 20 Years

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With summer temperatures rising to record numbers across the country, some of the hottest states naturally see an uptick in both mosquitos and dangerous parasites that can cause illness in people. Put together, that can create the perfect storm for health hazards that have otherwise been dormant for decades.

Malaria, a mosquito-borne infectious disease that impacts people and animals, has been confirmed in at least five cases in the U.S. for the first time in twenty years. According to the CDC, four of the cases were identified in Southwest Florida and one in Southern Texas.

Americans who contract malaria typically get it through travel to places where it’s more prevalent. These cases are unusual in that they were locally contracted. All five patients have been treated and are said to be improving. Public health officials are monitoring and taking measures to control the mosquito populations in both Florida and Texas, while also closely watching for others in those regions who may show signs of infection.

With the health and safety of our communities in mind, we’re here with our expert, board-certified infectious disease physician, Vincent Hsu, MD, to walk you through what malaria is, its risk factors and symptoms, how it’s treated, and above all, how to protect yourself and those you love from illness.

What is Malaria?

Malaria is a serious and sometimes deadly disease. It’s mostly spread through being bitten by infected mosquitos. But rarely, malaria can be transmitted from mother to fetus or to her baby at birth, or through organ transplantation, blood transfusion or unsafe needle-sharing practices.

The CDC states, “Malaria is a medical emergency and should be treated accordingly. Patients suspected of having malaria should be urgently evaluated in a facility that is able to provide rapid diagnosis and treatment, within 24 hours of presentation.”

Dr. Hsu explains, “Malaria is neither caused by a bacterium nor a virus, but by a single-celled parasite. When an infected mosquito bites an individual, it injects malaria parasites into the bloodstream, causing illness.”

While malaria can cause severe illness or even death, the good news is that it’s still considered extremely rare to contract it, and worst-case scenarios can usually be prevented by following safety measures or seeking prompt treatment.

Signs and Symptoms of Malaria

Those who have malaria typically feel very ill with a high fever and shaking chills. Signs and symptoms usually begin within several weeks following the infected mosquito bite, and include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Breathing problems
  • Chest pain
  • Chills
  • Cough
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling very unwell
  • Headache
  • High fever
  • Joint or muscle pain
  • Nausea
  • Rapid breathing
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Vomiting

Reach out to your doctor if you have a fever and you live in a currently impacted region or recently traveled to a place with a high risk of malaria. If you have severe symptoms, seek emergency medical care immediately.

Malaria Risk Factors

“The greatest risk factor for developing malaria is to live in or to visit areas where it’s prevalent, typically in tropical and subtropical regions like Sub-Saharan Africa, South and Southeast Asia, Central American and South America, and the Pacific Islands,” says Dr. Hsu.

In light of the confirmed cases in Florida and Texas and with climates gradually warming throughout the U.S., know that the degree of risk depends on local malaria control, seasonal changes in malaria rates and the safety measures you follow to prevent mosquito bites.

Those at higher risk of serious illness from malaria include infants, children, older adults, pregnant women and their unborn babies, and travelers to regions with high malaria rates.

How to Protect Yourself From Malaria

Dr. Hsu advises, “The number one tip to avoid getting malaria is to take steps to avoid getting mosquito bites. Mosquitoes thrive in warm, humid climates with a high amount of rainfall and are most active between dusk and dawn.”

Try the following tips to protect yourself from mosquito bites:

  • Avoid damp places and standing water, such as swamps, ponds and small lakes —especially between dusk and dawn
  • Cover your skin by wearing pants and long-sleeved shirts, with your shirt tucked in and pant legs tucked into your socks
  • Keep mosquitos out of your home, hotel room or lodging, and keep your space well-air-conditioned, whenever possible
  • Use insect repellant on your skin and spray it on your clothes (containing permethrin for clothes and gear). Do not spray it directly on your face and do not use it on children under 3 years old. For your safety, use an insect repellant registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

Is There a Malaria Vaccine?

Vaccines are only available for children who live in countries with high rates of malaria cases. Researchers are continuing to study and develop malaria vaccines to prevent infection.

Quick, Expert Treatment for Malaria is Vital

According to Dr. Hsu, “Malaria is curable with prompt and precise diagnosis and treatment. A lab test will confirm whether you have malaria and what type of parasite is causing your symptoms, which will determine what kind(s) of medication you’ll take and for how long.”

After a positive diagnosis, your doctor will prescribe the proper medicines to kill the malaria parasite. Some parasites are resistant to medications and combination prescriptions will be given.

While going without medical help can result in serious complications including organ damage and death, with the right treatment at the right time, a malaria infection can be cured, allowing you to heal physically and emotionally.

Trust Our Experts to Get You Well

Trust the experts at AdventHealth to help should you or someone you love becomes ill.

Visit us here to learn more about how our infectious disease specialists, like Dr. Hsu, who can help you get and stay healthy with whole-person care and support.

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