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Malaria Myths and Facts

malaria myths and facts
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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 Maybe

Small amounts of quinine make tonic water fluorescent. Photo source: WikiCommons

Many 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

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{ 17 comments… add one }

  • Traveling Ted September 19, 2011, 9:17 pm

    Thanks for clearing some of these misconceptions up. Although I know a good deal about malaria, I was guilty of a few of these fallacies.

    • phil September 21, 2011, 11:47 am

      Glad to shed some light, Ted. Thanks for stopping by.

  • David September 24, 2011, 10:43 pm

    Thanks I was wondering if I was gonna have malaria the rest of my life I contracted falciparum malaria in 2010 during a operation in Haiti and malaria did a good number on me I was in coma for 27 days during treatment my recommendation to anyone traveling to places with malaria take precaution malaria is no joke

    • phil September 25, 2011, 12:09 am

      Wow, David, sorry to hear that. 27 days!! Glad you’re ok, though! I’ve had p. falciparum twice myself, but thankfully was able to treat it quickly with coartem each time and it didn’t get severe. You are right, Malaria is no joke.

  • Marina K. Villatoro October 8, 2011, 5:17 pm

    I took Malaria pills for 9 months thinking that they would be helpful. Instead the unknown side effect is that you get sand in your gallbladder. at 29 I had to get my gall bladder removed in Guatemala.

    Malaria can be treated if caught in time, stay away from the meds to ‘prevent’ it.
    It’s super horrible, and most of the time what you take could be the cure which your body becomes immune to

    • phil October 8, 2011, 9:40 pm

      Wow, so sorry to hear that Marina. Which prophylactic were you taking? I think it definitely depends on where you are traveling. P. falciparum is the dominant strain in Africa and it can cause severe and/or cerebral malaria. The case for prophylactics is a lot stronger here than in many other places. That said, coartem is a good emergency treatment that I have been using the past few years (I’ve had malaria twice) and during my most recent trip to Mali, I did not take prophylactics.

  • Jim October 9, 2011, 1:00 am

    Good info Phil. I’m surprised you haven’t yet had all the arguments that rage on over this subject that happen on many travel forums when ever someone raises the malaria issue. Brings out the worst in many travellers. At the pre-tour meet-up in Ethiopia, we were astounded that within 5 minutes of meeting, when the tour guide began going over health expectations, 3 females were arguing loudly over which meds everyone should be taking!
    We cringed and just shut-up .
    BTW, “Sand” in the gall bladder has many causes and is a relatively common gall bladder disease.

    • phil October 9, 2011, 12:53 pm

      Yeah, it is definitely a touchy subject. A lot of people don’t realize that meds and treatment depend on where they are traveling. Someone might have used coartem as a malaria treatment in Africa, but that might not be as effective in say, SE Asia. They also don’t realize that there are multiple strains of malaria and they have different consequences and resistance to certain meds. My approach on this site is to lay out all the options and inform, ultimately pointing people to a travel health clinic/doctor that they should consult before leaving. When were you in Ethiopia?

  • Jim October 9, 2011, 4:46 pm

    Exactly Phil, individual decisions should be made on researching the facts, and consulting professionals.
    We travelled Ethiopia last August, end of rainy season. Very exciting trip. You heading there?

    • phil October 9, 2011, 5:04 pm

      That’s awesome. At some point I will. Probably not within the next year, though. I am a big fan of Ethiopian music 🙂

  • Kingskey April 14, 2013, 7:27 pm

    I am kingsley from Nigeria …. I get regular bouts of malaria (even two days after a bite unlike the one week most articles claim,) compared to most of my friends who sleep even outside in the evenings (i knew this because i spent 5years in a boarding school) this has now made me so paranoid with insecticides together with the fact i take Malaria drugs almost every month, so i am wondering what strain of Malaria i constantly have and which group of Malaria drugs are the best …. So also what are the side effects of constant use of Malaria Drugs … I know this may not be a Malaria consultant forum but your advice would do me some real good. thank you sir

    • phil April 15, 2013, 9:48 am

      Hi Kingskey,
      Have you seen a doctor about this? It is unlikely that you have the same recurring strain of malaria in your body as falciparum malaria is the most common in Nigeria and it doesn’t recur if it is treated. Are you treating the malaria with coartem or something similar when you come down with it? Constant use of malaria drugs as prophylactics is something that you should talk to with your doctor, but right off the bat there are risks to your liver and depending on the drug, there may also be other side effects. Our best advice, however, would be to have a conversation with a medical professional about this if you are having malaria bouts so often. I hope the situation improves.
      – Phil

  • Merrill Burroughs May 3, 2015, 3:01 pm

    I contracted malaria in’70 in Viet Nam.Every so often I have the same symptoms only it doesn’t last near as long. Fever, shaking so bad every muscle in my body hurts, talking out of my head for hours. It may happen once every 2-3 months. Could this be a relapse of malaria ? Thanks Merrill

  • Agnes May 9, 2016, 12:00 am

    Hi I’m Agnes from Ghana ,I had malaria and I treated it with antimalarial drug that is effective and available here.After 2weeks of treatment, I have began experiencing the symptoms again, my question is can I have another treatment with antimalarial drug.

    • phil September 19, 2017, 11:04 am

      Hi Agnes, you can treat it with a different drug, yes, but it would be best to see a doctor immediately and have a proper diagnosis.

  • Kathy September 19, 2017, 10:54 am

    When living in Africa I contracted malaria and was treated with coartem and an antibiotic plus minus 3 years ago. We immigrated to the UK and I was diagnosed with malaria again. This time it was more severe than the original time. Now a year later I have it again although not so severe. What is the reason for this and do you think it will be an ongoing thing

    • phil September 19, 2017, 11:05 am

      Hi Kathy,

      Where did you get the malaria? Certain parts of Africa have strains of p.vivax which is much more prone to relapse over an extended period of time.

      Cheers,
      Phil

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