Malaria is neither caused by viruses nor bacteria but is an infection caused by the single-celled Plasmodium parasite. Globally, around 300 to 500 million people suffer from malaria each year, and approximately 1 million deaths occur from it, although estimates vary. It is most endemic in tropical regions with warm temperatures, such as Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central and South America, and the South Pacific. People who have no access to health care or any previous contact with malaria, as well as pregnant women, infants, and elderly travelers, are most at risk of catching malaria.
People contract malaria when the Plasmodium parasite enters the blood, which happens through an infected Anopheles mosquito in the majority of cases. A female mosquito bites a person who is already infected with malaria, sucks the person’s blood, and bites someone else, transferring the parasites into the new victim’s bloodstream. In rare cases, malaria can spread through organ transplants, blood transfusions, and contaminated syringes and needles. It can also be passed on to an unborn baby whose mother is infected.
After the parasites enter the bloodstream, they first affect the human liver. There, they develop and reproduce until they start invading red blood cells. As the parasite attacks a significant number of healthy red blood cells and cause them to burst open, the victim falls ill. The initial symptoms of malaria are very similar to those of the flu, such as high fever, cough, chills, headache, joint and muscle aches, and fatigue, in addition to vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, and abnormal sweating. They usually start about 10 to 30 days after the parasite enters the bloodstream and are easily recognizable but often mistaken for other diseases like influenza. As the disease progresses, it may cause blood pressure and blood sugar to decrease, jaundice, delirium, and breathing problems, and body parts such as the liver, lungs, kidney, and spleen will likely be affected. Malaria also heavily affects the brain and the central nervous system as it causes red blood cells to be destroyed. If not treated early in its course, malaria becomes fatal. Due to the massive decrease of red blood cells, complications like anemia, brain damage, seizures, organ failures, paralysis, and coma may develop, eventually resulting in death.
Fortunately, malaria can be completely cured if the correct drugs are taken promptly to eradicate the parasites from the blood. Some common clinical drugs given by doctors include chloroquine, quinine, doxycycline, clindamycin, mefloquine, and artemisinin. Prescription depends on what country the patient contracted the disease in, what form of malaria it is, and how severe it is. Doctors often prescribe a combination of drugs to destroy the pathogens in multiple ways. In severe cases, medication is directly injected into the patient’s veins. Creating vaccines for malaria is also undergoing, but this has proven difficult because the Plasmodium parasite constantly modifies its surface to elude the human immune system.