Malaria Is One of the Most Serious Public Health Crises Facing the World
When many people think of malaria, they form a mental picture of people in Panama hats hacking through the jungle way back in colonial times. Many Americans assume malaria is a disease of the past, or at least of a faraway somewhere. However, this could not be further from the truth. Indeed, malaria remains a major public health threat endangering the lives of millions of people around the globe every year.
According to a report by the World Health Organization, 300 million people get infected with malaria each year, with 2 to 3 million deaths occurring as a result. To put that in perspective, that’s roughly the same number of people who inhabit the city of New York. With so many lives lost each year from malaria, why do we hear so little about it?
Malaria is the result of a specific type of parasite that infects a certain type of mosquito. The parasite does not kill the mosquito, and that allows the parasite to get passed to dozens, if not hundreds, of people during the mosquito’s short lifespan. Malaria can also be transmitted through blood transfusions. However, with modern testing techniques, this mode of contamination is rare.
When a person contracts malaria, they develop flu-like symptoms. Hallmark symptoms of malaria include excessive fatigue, vomiting, headache, muscle aches, nausea and alternating fever and chills. When symptoms first occur, many people incorrectly ascribe their symptoms to the flu. Time is of the essence, since untreated malaria can lead to jaundice and liver failure from lost red blood cells or severe anemia. Seizures and death may follow.
Therefore, people who have traveled to a tropical region where malaria risk is high should not put off a trip to the doctor, urgent care or ER if symptoms fail to abate after two to three days. Failure to take action can indeed be fatal, and is for many around the globe. Malaria gets diagnosed via a blood test, so lab work is necessary to get an accurate diagnosis. In the U.S., only approximately 1,500 new cases of malaria get diagnosed annually, and nearly 100 percent of U.S. cases involve people who have recently traveled abroad. Therefore, travelers really do need to pay extra attention if symptoms appear.
Once someone receives a diagnosis, drug treatment can begin. There are several effective anti-malarial drugs already on the market. However, in recent years, strains of the malaria parasite that are resistant to current drug therapies have emerged in places like Nigeria and Venezuela. Recently, the Wellcome Trust, a global charity, received a U.S. grant of $3.6 million to develop new anti-malarial treatments to cure those who have contracted strains resistant to current therapies.
In many areas of the globe, however — including those where malaria is most prevalent — access to medical care remains scarce. In poorer areas of South America, some Asian countries such as India and across sub-Saharan Africa, many individuals live their entire lives without ever seeing a physician. The best anti-malarial drugs in the world serve no purpose if access to them is de facto unavailable to those who need the treatment most.
The humanitarian crisis caused by malaria continues to grow. Those at highest risk are young children and breastfeeding women, presumably because they often share sleeping areas and are bit by the same infected mosquitoes. In some areas of sub-Saharan Africa, the mortality rate from malaria tops 90 percent. This disease has wiped out entire villages.
When so many people live in areas where access to medical care is either nonexistent or unaffordable, swift action is necessary to stem this crisis. New drugs will help those who have access to them, but do little for the vast majority of sufferers.
Because of the difficulty of obtaining medical care for so many affected individuals, prevention of malaria is critical. Nonprofit organizations and charities, such as Malaria No More and Nothing But Nets, help by doing things like providing medicine, volunteers and free mosquito nets to areas in need. With a child dying every two minutes of malaria, public support is critical in preventing new cases of malaria and more unnecessary deaths.