Malaria is a disease caused by parasites that are spread to people by certain types of mosquitos. Malaria parasites live in red blood cells and can cause fever, headache, vomiting and convulsions. If left untreated, malaria can lead to severe illness and death. Malaria is especially dangerous in young children and pregnant women. Only Anopheles mosquitoes transmit malaria parasites. There are four types of malaria parasites, but Plasmodium falciparum causes the most severe infections and is common in many countries in Africa.
People with malaria can be treated and cured by eliminating malaria parasites in their blood. Before treatment, anyone who is suspected of having malaria should be tested using a parasite-based diagnostic test, either with a rapid diagnostic test or by microscopy. For treatment of confirmed, uncomplicated malaria caused by P. falciparum, the World Health Organization recommends using the drug artemisinin in combination with another drug (artemisinin-based combination therapy), which is usually given as a tablet. Proper treatment of people with malaria will reduce transmission of the infection to others, help eliminate the disease and help prevent the spread of parasites that are resistant to antimalarial drugs.
Malaria can be prevented by what is called vector control, preventing mosquitoes from biting. The two most effective ways to prevent malaria are using insecticide-treated bed nets and spraying an insecticide on the interior walls of homes, called indoor residual spraying.
Because pregnant women are vulnerable to malaria, in countries with moderate to high malaria transmission, the World Health Organization recommends that pregnant women take a preventive treatment referred to as intermittent preventive treatment in pregnancy (IPTp). In certain parts of the world, the World Health Organization now recommends that infants and children under age 5 take preventive treatment, referred to as intermittent preventive treatment in infants and seasonal malaria chemoprevention, respectively. Travelers can use antimalarial drugs to prevent malaria.
In areas where there is a lot of malaria, children over age 5 usually become partially immune by repeated exposure to the disease. Children under 5 can develop severe malaria, which can rapidly lead to death. In these areas, children under 5 with a fever, and others who are susceptible, should be tested for malaria within 24 hours of the onset of fever and promptly treated if they test positive for malaria.
In addition to children under 5, people who have not acquired immunity (such as travelers or migrants), people living with HIV and pregnant women are also susceptible to severe malaria.
Malaria is transmitted in tropical and subtropical areas where Anopheles mosquitoes and malaria parasites can survive and multiply. In these areas, temperatures are usually above 68°F (20°C) throughout the year. The climate in many parts of Africa below the Sahara Desert allows mosquitoes to transmit malaria year round. The major malaria parasite-carrying mosquito in sub-Saharan Africa is Anopheles gambiae, which can breed in many different types of habitats, including tire tracks and fields. The most common parasite species in Africa, Plasmodium falciparum, unlike other species, can cause severe cases of malaria and death.
In addition to Africa, P. falciparum is also transmitted in central and Southeast Asia—most people at risk live in India, Indonesia, Myanmar and New Guinea—and in areas of the Americas.