Health Care Public Health

Protect Your Health: Malaria Cases Seen in the United States for the First Time in 20 Years

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If you’re considering traveling south this winter, you may be wondering what’s going on with malaria, a mosquito-borne infectious disease that’s been confirmed in at least 10 locally acquired cases in the United States for the first time in 20 years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one case was reported in Maryland, seven in Florida and one in Texas. The Arkansas Department of Health recently confirmed its first locally acquired case as well.

Typically, Americans who contract malaria get it through travel to places where it’s more prevalent. These recent cases, however, were contracted locally. All nine patients have been treated and are said to be improving. Meanwhile, public health officials are taking measures to control the mosquito populations in these areas and closely watching for other patients who show signs of infection.

With the health and safety of our communities in mind, we asked board-certified infectious disease physician Vincent Hsu, MD, to share his insights on the illness and offer ways to protect your family from this illness.

What is Malaria?

Malaria is a disease that’s mostly spread through infected mosquitos. It can, however, also be transmitted from mother to fetus, from mother to baby at birth, or through organ transplantation, blood transfusion or unsafe needle-sharing practices — though spread in these ways is rare.
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.”

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

Signs or Symptoms of Malaria

In general, people with malaria feel very ill, experiencing high fever and shaking chills. Most symptoms begin within several weeks following the infected mosquito bite, and include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Breathing problems
  • Chest pain
  • Chills
  • Cough
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • 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 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 visit areas where it’s prevalent, typically in tropical and subtropical regions like Sub-Saharan Africa, South and Southeast Asia, Central and South America, and the Pacific Islands,” says Dr. Hsu.

With confirmed cases and climates gradually warming throughout the United States, It’s important to know 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 No. 1 tip to avoid getting malaria is to take steps to avoid getting mosquito bites. Mosquitos 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 repellent on your skin and spray it on your clothes. Do not spray it directly on your face, and do not use it on children under three years old. Also, for your safety, use an insect repellent 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. However, researchers continue 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 medicine(s) to kill the malaria parasite.

Going without medical help can result in serious complications, including organ damage and death. But with the right treatment at the right time, a malaria infection is curable.

Trust Our Experts to Get You Well

If you or someone you love becomes ill, you can trust the experts at AdventHealth to help. Learn more about how our infectious disease specialists, like Dr. Hsu, can help you get and stay healthy with whole-person care and support that gets you back to feeling like yourself again.

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