Malaria is a serious, sometimes fatal, disease caused by a parasite. There are four kinds of malaria that can infect humans: Plasmodium falciparum, P. vivax, P. ovale, and P. malariae.
Malaria occurs in over 100 countries and territories. More than 40% of the people in the world are at risk. Large areas of Central and South America, Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Oceania are considered malaria-risk areas.
The World Health Organization estimates that yearly 300-500 million cases of malaria occur and more than 1 million people die of malaria. About 1,200 cases of malaria are diagnosed in the United States each year. Most cases in the United States are in immigrants and travelers returning from malaria-risk areas, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian subcontinent.
Humans get malaria from the bite of a malaria-infected mosquito. When a mosquito bites an infected person, it ingests microscopic malaria parasites found in the personís blood. The malaria parasite must grow in the mosquito for a week or more before infection can be passed to another person. If, after a week, the mosquito then bites another person, the parasites go from the mosquitoís mouth into the personís blood. The parasites then travel to the personís liver, enter the liverís cells, grow and multiply. During this time when the parasites are in the liver, the person has not yet felt sick. The parasites leave the liver and enter red blood cells; this may take as little as 8 days or as many as several months. Once inside the red blood cells, the parasites grow and multiply. The red blood cells burst, freeing the parasites to attack other red blood cells. Toxins from the parasite are also released into the blood, making the person feel sick. If a mosquito bites this person while the parasites are in his or her blood, it will ingest the tiny parasites. After a week or more, the mosquito can infect another person.
Each year in the United States, a few cases of malaria result from blood transfusions, are passed from mother to fetus during pregnancy, or are transmitted by locally infected mosquitoes.
For most people, symptoms begin 10 days to 4 weeks after infection, although a person may feel ill as early as 8 days or up to 1 year later. Two kinds of malaria, P. vivax and P. ovale, can relapse; some parasites can rest in the liver for several months up to 4 years after a person is bitten by an infected mosquito. When these parasites come out of hibernation and begin invading red blood cells, the person will become sick.
Malaria is diagnosed by looking for the parasites in a drop of blood. Blood will be put onto a microscope slide and stained so that the parasites will be visible under a microscope.
Any traveler who becomes ill with a fever or flu-like illness while traveling and up to 1 year after returning home should immediately seek professional medical care. You should tell your health care provider that you have been traveling in a malaria-risk area.