Sign Up

Malaria: The Silent Threat to Public Health

A large portion of the Sunshine State comprises natural wetland habitats that create a soggy, swampy environment – perfect for breeding pesky mosquitoes that enjoy the warm, humid weather in the summertime. Although itchy mosquito bites are typically more of an annoyance than life-threatening, recent outbreaks in Florida of a mosquito-borne disease called malaria have caught the public's attention. Additionally, more cases have been discovered in the State of Texas.

With these new cases on the rise, public health experts have sounded the alarm with state-wide advisories, especially for the areas that have seen the most outbreaks. Although effective treatments are readily available for individuals contracting the disease, state officials call for residents to take precautions and avoid areas with high mosquito populations.

If you have lived in these areas, you are no stranger to the pesky mosquito that is particularly active during sunrise and sunset. However, as these cases continue to rise, it's essential to know what the disease is and what part you play in preventing mosquito bites. If you suspect you and someone you know might have contracted the disease, seeking help and knowing what treatment options are vital to surviving.

What is Malaria?

Malaria is a potentially life-threatening disease typically transmitted through the bite of an infected female Anopheles mosquito. It is caused by Plasmodium parasites, with five different types known to infect humans: Plasmodium falciparum, Plasmodium vivax, Plasmodium malaria, and Plasmodium ovale; among these, P. falciparum and P. vivax pose the greatest threat.

When a mosquito infected with Plasmodium bites a person, the parasites are released into the bloodstream. They then travel to the liver, where they mature and reproduce. After 5 to 16 days, these mature parasites leave the liver and infect red blood cells, leading to disease symptoms. Symptoms can range from mild to life-threatening, and are good to know so that you can recognize them if you see them.

Severe symptoms include:

  • extreme tiredness and fatigue
  • impaired consciousness
  • multiple convulsions
  • difficulty breathing
  • dark or bloody urine
  • jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin)
  • abnormal bleeding

After understanding the symptoms of malaria and how insidious this disease can be, it's critical to turn our attention closer to home, where the specter of this typically tropical disease has been raising concerns. Both Florida and Texas, known for their warm climates, have recently seen an unexpected increase in malaria cases. These surges are not just anomalies; they are stark reminders of the persistent threat of malaria and the need for continued vigilance in prevention, diagnosis, and treatment. Now, let's delve deeper into what is happening in these two states, examining the recent outbreaks, potential causes, and measures to combat this re-emerging health challenge.

What's Happening in Florida in Texas?

Although malaria cases have been rare since eradicating the disease in the United States decades ago, sporadic cases have popped up occasionally. According to the CDC, the risk is higher in areas where mild weather temperatures allow the Anopheles mosquito to survive most of the year and where travelers from malaria-endemic regions can be more commonly found. Florida and Texas, due to their warm climates, abundant bodies of water, and significant populations of the Anopheles mosquito (the primary vector of malaria), are the perfect areas for these mosquito populations to thrive.

While public health measures have successfully prevented widespread outbreaks of malaria in the U.S., continued surveillance and preventive measures, such as controlling mosquito populations and promptly treating infected individuals, are crucial. These preventative measures have ensured that imported malaria cases do not lead to local outbreaks.

Prevention and Treatment Options

Photo of an adult spraying a young child with protective insect spray

Preventing malaria often involves a combination of different methods to reduce exposure to mosquito bites and avoid infection. Here are some prevention methods:

  1. Use of Insect Repellent: Apply insect repellent to exposed skin outdoors, especially during peak mosquito-biting hours (from dusk to dawn). Look for repellents that contain DEET or picaridin for the most effective protection.
  2. Wear Protective Clothing: Wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants, socks, and shoes outdoors, especially in mosquito-prone areas. Clothing treated with permethrin, a type of insecticide, can provide added protection.
  3. Sleep Under a Bed Net: Bed nets, particularly those treated with insecticides, can keep mosquitoes away during sleep. They are crucial in prevention, particularly where transmission occurs primarily at night in areas where the risk is high.
  4. Avoidance of Mosquito Habitats: Mosquitoes breed in water, so avoiding or being extra cautious around bodies of water, especially stagnant water, can help reduce the risk of mosquito bites.

These prevention strategies can significantly reduce the risk of malaria. However, none are 100% effective, so the best approach often involves combining several methods. If you're traveling to a malaria-endemic area, it's also essential to get professional medical advice regarding the best preventative measures for your situation.

Treatment depends on several factors, including the type of Plasmodium species that caused the infection, the severity of the symptoms, the age of the patient, and the patient's overall health status. Here are some general treatments:

  • Antimalarial Medication: These drugs are designed to kill the malaria parasite in the blood. The most common antimalarial drugs include Chloroquine, Quinine sulfate, Hydroxychloroquine, Mefloquine, and a combination of atovaquone and proguanil (Malarone).
  • Supportive care: This includes measures to control symptoms and prevent complications, such as fluid replacement and transfusion for severe anemia.

It's important to remember that malaria can be prevented in the first place by using measures such as mosquito nets, insecticides, and antimalarial medications in areas where the disease is prevalent.

In any case, if you suspect you or a loved one might have malaria, especially after traveling to a malaria-prone region, it's essential to seek medical advice immediately. Prompt treatment is crucial for survival and can dramatically reduce the risk of complications. Additionally, strides have been taken to produce a vaccine that could help malaria prevention. However, it has yet to be as successful as hoped and, therefore, is still unavailable in the United States.

The Malaria Vaccine: Where Do We Stand?

Photo of malaria vaccine

The world's first malaria vaccine, RTS,S/AS01 (trade name Mosquirix), has been a significant step in combatting malaria. Developed by GlaxoSmithKline and the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative, it's designed to protect against Plasmodium falciparum, the deadliest malaria parasite. The World Health Organization has endorsed this vaccine for children in areas with moderate to high transmission.

Research continues to progress, with promising candidates like the R21/Matrix-M vaccine, which was recently approved in Ghana, showing potentially higher efficacy. The journey towards a highly effective malaria vaccine is ongoing, and despite challenges, the progress made reflects the global commitment to tackling this disease.

Malaria remains a formidable public health challenge, affecting millions of people worldwide, particularly in the poorest, most vulnerable regions. However, significant strides have been made in the battle against this disease. Progress in preventive measures, improved treatments, ongoing surveillance, and the development of the world's first malaria vaccine offers hope for a future where malaria is no longer a deadly threat. The recent cases in Florida and Texas underscore the importance of continued vigilance in malaria prevention and control strategies, even in regions where the disease is not typically prevalent. The fight against malaria is a global responsibility that requires the cooperation of health organizations, communities, and individuals to come together and work towards eradicating this disease.

*CEUfast is currently offering its Malaria course for free, no subscription required, to receive 1 contact hour for applicable professions. With the free Malaria course, you can download your certificate and electronically report it if you have a participating license on your account.

Try CEUfast today!