Malaria is caused by the plasmodium parasite, which enters the human body through the bite of a female Anopheles mosquito. The mosquito can deposit this microscopic parasite into the body only after biting a person who already has the disease. A single mosquito bite is enough to cause malaria.
Malaria is common in tropical countries and developing countries. About 619,000 people died in 2021 from this disease. India has contributed about 82% percent of malaria cases in Southeast Asia.
Malaria is preventable and treatable but can be fatal if not treated promptly. This illness is not contagious like the flu or COVID-19, and you will not catch it from someone else.
Anyone can fall sick with malaria, but there are some people more susceptible to the disease, like:
- Young children
- Pregnant individuals and their unborn children
- Tourists and travellers coming from areas with no malaria
- The elderly
- People with autoimmune diseases like HIV/AIDS
People who live in areas where malaria is common tend to develop partial immunity to the virus. But that does not mean they are completely safe from contracting the disease.
Malaria: Causes of the disease
The primary causative agent of malaria is the bite of an infected mosquito. However, there are few cases where the disease has been transmitted through:
- Pregnancy to the unborn child
- Sharing needles and syringes
- Blood transfusions
We need to understand the parasite transmission cycle to know more about how malaria is caused.
- The uninfected mosquito feeds on the blood of a person with malaria.
- The mosquito then bites you, injects the parasite plasmodium into your bloodstream, and then travels to your liver. The incubation period varies depending on the type of parasite–it can remain dormant in your body for over a year.
- The parasite matures in the liver and then breaks into the bloodstream to attack and destroy your red blood cells. Around this time is when you will typically display the symptoms of malaria.
- The cycle continues if an uninfected mosquito bites you and moves on to its next human target.
There are different types of malaria parasite species, found in different regions of the world. They are mostly recognised by the severity of symptoms along with how widespread their presence is. There are four plasmodium types known to infect humans and cause illness:
- Plasmodium vivax: This parasite is known to be the most lethal after infection. It is the most common malarial parasite species, accounting for a majority of disease cases. Because of p. vivax, nearly 2.5 billion people risk developing malaria symptoms.
- Plasmodium falciparum: This is also the most common cause of malaria and is considered the deadliest species. If malaria caused by this parasite is not addressed within 24 hours, it can cause severe harm to the central nervous system and even death.
- Plasmodium malariae: This parasite is much more common in Sub-Saharan Africa and the southwest Pacific, but malaria from it is still relatively rare.
- Plasmodium ovale: It is also uncommon compared with Plasmodium vivax and Plasmodium falciparum.
Symptoms of malaria
Depending on the symptoms and how far gone they are, malaria is either uncomplicated or severe. The first few days when you fall sick, the symptoms can easily be confused with the flu. Some symptoms of malaria also overlap with those of other diseases. Never ignore any discomfort you are experience and reach out for medical advice immediately.
The common signs and symptoms you may experience after being bit by an infected mosquito are:
- General feeling of sickness and discomfort
- Nausea and vomiting
- Abdominal pain
- Muscle or joint pain
- Fatigue or malaise
- Rapid breathing
- Abnormal or rapid heart rate
If malaria is untreated or access to treatment is not quick, there are chances of serious health complications. Severe malaria is a possibility that can lead to major issues, like:
- Severe malarial anaemia
- Organ failure
- Neurological problems like seizures and confusion
- Liver and kidney dysfunction; breathing difficulties
- Cerebral malaria that causes swelling in the brain
- Very low blood sugar
Treatment of malaria
Malaria is treated with medication, and the symptoms of the disease will usually wane within two weeks of treatment. Usually, after diagnostic testing to determine the presence of the malarial parasite and the species, you will be prescribed drugs to counter the symptoms.
The type of medication given will depend on your age, general well-being and physical health, the severity of your symptoms, any known allergies to medicines, and whether you are pregnant. The medication can be administered orally or through an injection intravenously.
Hospitalisation is not a requirement if you have uncomplicated malaria. You will be treated on an outpatient basis; that is, you will not be asked to stay overnight in the hospital. In the case of severe malaria, your condition will require regular monitoring because the complications are potentially fatal.
Malaria can recur because the parasite stays in your system long after you have been sick the first time. Relapses are entirely possible, but the disease will, in all likelihood, manifest in a milder form.