I have had malaria twice. Once in northwestern Benin, once in Bamako, Mali. Each time, I was fortunate to receive treatment in a reasonable amount of time. If you are traveling in an area where malaria is endemic, it’s important to recognize the risk and take preventative measures. It’s equally important to know the signs and symptoms, and the various treatment options.
Malaria is one of the more sinister parasitic infections on the planet. In the throes of a malarial fever, you are simultaneously freezing to death and burning from the inside out. If left untreated, organ failure, coma and death are real possibilities.
Before traveling to an area where malaria is endemic, make an appointment at a travel health clinic. You will be provided with a prescription for malaria prophylaxis. There are three primary options, mefloquine, doxycycline and malarone, each with its own set of pros and cons. Malaria prophylactics are not foolproof, they have possible side effects and of course they add to the cost of your trip. That said, they are your best line of defense and in the event that you do come down with malaria they can potentially mitigate the effects.
In addition to prophylactics, you should regularly apply a DEET based repellant and always (ALWAYS) sleep under a mosquito net. Always.
Signs you have malaria
Malaria introduces itself with flu-like symptoms that are innocent enough – a fever with some aches and pains. The ostensibly harmless introduction quickly gives way to unimaginable fatigue and a fever that comes in waves, each time gaining strength and offering new dimensions of suffering. When the fever intensifies, know that billions of your red blood cells have just been destroyed and the malaria protist is searching for new places to take up residence. You may also experience nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness and hallucinations.
Left untreated, malaria can be fatal. If you have severe or cerebral malaria, immediate treatment is vital. If are experiencing the symptoms above and you are in an area where malaria is endemic, assume you have malaria and act accordingly. Get yourself to a clinic, where you can get a malaria test and treatment. Every clinic in sub-Saharan Africa has an intimate knowledge of malaria.
That said, always carry a treatment solution with you as an emergency stand by. Coartem is widely recommended for this purpose. I have taken it twice. Each time, I felt relief within 12 hours. If you are in a rural area, you may not be able to get to a clinic for a malaria test. Start taking Coartem and follow the full course of treatment.
Malaria tests have a tendency to come up negative and it is not uncommon for a clinic to deliver malaria treatment to a patient who is not testing positive.
Malaria can be dormant in your system for up to 30 days. This means that you could be back at home with a fever and diarrhea and your doctor will be thinking you have the flu. Make sure to take prophylactics for the prescribed time (varies depending on the medication) and disclose your travels with your doctor.
One more time: sleep under a mosquito net.
Photo credit: Photo by Phil Paoletta