There is a lot of misinformation floating around about malaria. Some of the remarks I’ve heard are slightly off base. Others are downright foolish. Before we get into it, I want to include our standard, but no less important, disclaimer: make sure you consult a doctor at a travel health clinic several weeks before traveling.
For further reading on malaria see our previous articles here and consult the CDC’s malaria page. Now for some malaria myths and facts:
Once you get malaria you will have it for the rest of your life False
If you’ve had malaria, you are no longer eligible to donate your blood. Does this mean you still have malaria? The answer is maybe. It depends on the strain and the treatment received. It’s true that some strains of malaria – notably p. vivax and p. ovale – can stay dormant in your liver for years (See this paper). However, relapses do not occur with strains like p. falciparum, the most common strain found in sub-Saharan Africa. If you are infected with p. falciparum and you are able to get sufficient treatment, you will be free from malaria, provided you don’t get reinfected. See this table from the CDC to find out what strain of malaria is present at your destination.
Once you get malaria you will be immune from it for the rest of your life False
Unfortunately, malaria is not like chickenpox. Whether you have had malaria one time or one hundred times, it’s always possible to come down with the disease again. In addition, while it is true that some people (among them, many in sub-Saharan Africa) have a certain genetic resistance to malaria due to the so-called sickle cell gene, no one has been shown to have complete natural immunity. Furthermore, in many cases the sickle cell gene may do little to prevent initial infection. Rather, the gene may prevent severe symptoms and death. The bottom line here is that no one is inherently immune to malaria and initial infection itself does not confer immunity.
Malaria can be treated with homeopathic or herbal remedies MaybeMany of the malaria prophylactics and treatment options have natural active ingredients. Quinine, for example, comes from the bark of the cinchona tree. That said, there are no homeopathic remedies that you can take to treat malaria and while some herbal remedies have shown promise, it would be unwise to rely on them. When I was studying abroad in Ghana, a student from another study abroad program came down with malaria and then insisted on only using natural remedies to treat it. He was admitted to the hospital, but still he refused treatment. After several days, the malaria became severe and he passed away. Natural remedies have their place, but when it comes to an illness like malaria, use the proven treatments.
We have written about certain natural remedies like wormwood tea and while there have been promising results due to the active compounds in this tea, dosage and purity is a major problem and it’s simply not worth the risk!
One more thing: tonic water, despite the fact that it has quinine in it, won’t prevent or treat malaria. You would have to drink gallons of the stuff to even come close.
You can get malaria even if you take a prophylactic True
The first time I came down with malaria, I was taking Lariam. The fact is no prophylactic is 100% effective. This doesn’t mean you should not take prophylactics (most prophylactics have a protection rate of 90% and above). You simply need to be aware that you can still come down with malaria and take the necessary precautions (see our tips towards the end of this article for avoiding bites). When I am traveling in West Africa, I carry coartem, an emergency backup treatment option. If I experience malaria symptoms and I don’t have immediate access to a clinic, I will start taking coartem immediately. It’s important to be prepared for any situation.
You don’t have to worry about malaria in the dry season False
There may be fewer mosquitos in the dry season, but that does not mean you are protected from malaria. Remember that a single bite from a single mosquito could infect you with malaria. Take precautions regardless of the season.
Malaria is only dangerous for the elderly and the very young False
Untreated, severe malaria can kill a healthy adult in their mid-20’s. Similar to the relapse issue in point #1, fatality rates depend on the strain and whether proper treatment was administered. P. falciparum is responsible for most of the malaria deaths in the world (90% of them occur in Africa where p. falciparum is prevalent) and it was most likely the strain that killed the study abroad student I mentioned earlier. Regardless of whether or not you are taking prophylactics, it is critical that you seek treatment immediately if you are experiencing symptoms. Treatment success rates for all strains of malaria are high when medical care is sought soon after the onset of symptoms.
We hope this post was informative, but as we said at the beginning, this is a topic you will want to discuss with a doctor at a travel health clinic. For further reading to prepare yourself for that conversation, see our other malaria articles and have a look at the CDC’s malaria page.
Have you heard any misguided statements or wrong assumptions about malaria? Please share them in the comments. Photo credit: Flickr user dr_relling