Malaria is endemic to many tropical parts of the world, and it can result in severe complications if you contract the disease while travelling. So if you’re planning a trip to a tropical area, here’s what you need to know.
Find out if your travel plans put you at risk
West Africa is the area with the highest risk of malaria transmission, and other areas of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and parts of South America can pose a malaria risk as well. But it depends on exactly where you are travelling, and when.
So when you know you have a tropical trip coming up, visit a doctor or clinic that understands travel medicine. They’ll help you figure out how much of a risk malaria is at your destination, and depending on your plans, they may recommend medicine to prevent malaria. Even if you’ve been to the area before, or lived there as a child, you may still be at risk.
(The CDC calls people in this situation “VFR travellers,” for “visiting friends and relatives,” and they have a special page for you about your malaria risk.)
For a preview of what a health professional might tell you, check out this table from the CDC that details the malaria risk, and recommended medications, for different locations around the world.
Recommendations will also depend on how long you plan to be at the location, and on your own health status, as explained in this risk assessment guide.
If you are prescribed medicine, take it
You may be given malaria medication (“chemoprophylaxis”) that is meant to be taken throughout your trip. If so, take it. It doesn’t guarantee you’ll avoid the disease, but it greatly improves your chances. And if you do contract malaria while taking the drugs, you are likely to have a less severe case.
If you take the medicine inconsistently, you may still contract malaria but it may take longer for symptoms to show up. Do yourself and your health care providers a favour, and take the medication as recommended.
In some cases, you may also be given “standby emergency” medication to treat malaria if you contract it and can’t get to a healthcare provider. Know how to use it, pack it with you, but don’t use it as an excuse to skip your other medication.
Avoid mosquito bites
Whether you are taking medication or not, it’s important to avoid mosquito bites. (Malaria is caused by a microscopic parasite, and the parasite is transmitted from person to person by mosquitoes.) Mosquito repellent is important: the CDC recommends repellents that use DEET, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus, or picaridin.
Window screens and other barriers can help you avoid mosquito bites as well. If you aren’t sure what kind of accommodations to expect, or if you know you’ll be in a place where mosquitoes and malaria are common, you can bring an insecticide-treated bed net that keeps mosquitoes off your body while you’re sleeping. (Tuck it under the mattress.) The mosquitoes that transmit malaria are most active at night.
Common sense mosquito bite prevention also applies: consider wearing long sleeved shirts and covering as much exposed skin as you can; stay inside when mosquitoes are active; and cover baby carriers with mosquito netting too.
Watch out for symptoms
You can develop malaria even after returning from your trip. For at least three months, keep an eye out for fever or flu-like symptoms, including headache, chills, and muscle weakness. Make sure to tell your doctor that you’ve been to an area with malaria.