Malaria myths

Swat the malaria menace by arming yourself with some facts about the disease

Lens on a mosquito bite

The monumental progress science and medicine has made seems to be powerless against the havoc wreaked by a tiny mosquito. Centuries have passed since we know malaria as a disease and still we continue to lose millions of lives to it every year. And yet, Malaria is a disease that is fairly easy to treat and even easier to prevent. Perhaps the rampant ignorance about the disease is partly responsible for fuelling this uncontrolled run. It’s time we bust some of the myths about this menace.

Myth: If there are no chills, it cannot be malaria.
Fact: The symptoms of malaria can be misleading as they vary from being mild such as fever and headaches to being more serious like jaundice, difficulty in breathing and decreased urination. Many malaria patients do not suffer from the typical shaking chills in the early stages of the infection. Hence, waiting till you experience chills or rigors to get a blood test or to consult your physician can prove risky as the disease will have progressed by then.
Myth: All types of malaria are basically the same.
Fact: While all types of malaria are caused due to the bite of mosquitoes belonging to the Plasmodium species, each type of malaria runs a different course depending on the sub-species the mosquito belongs to. Of the five species of Plasmodia that are known to infect humans, most cases of malaria in the world are caused by P. falciparum and P. vivax. Whereas cases of infection from P. falciparum may turn severe and even cause deaths, P. vivax generally runs a mild course.
While P. vivax malaria responds well to chloroquine, P. falciparum is treated with newer drugs. However, since a lay person wouldn’t know the difference between the two cases, it’s better to visit the doctor at the first suspicion.
Myth: Nowadays, malaria is rare so we needn’t bother about it affecting us.
Fact: Every year millions suffer from malaria and according to some estimates, nearly two lakh Indians die of its complications. With rapid urbanisation and population migration from malaria-infested rural regions into the cities, many Indian cities are now reporting malaria cases in increasing numbers. One may also contract malaria by travelling to places where the infection is rampant. So, everybody is still at a risk.
Myth: Since malaria is well-known to doctors, a blood test is redundant for treatment.
Fact: Treating malaria merely on clinical suspicion may not be wise because different types of malaria are treated differently. A blood test not only confirms the diagnosis but also ascertain the type of malaria. It also helps in assessing severity of the infection. So when your doctor asks for a blood test, heed to her advice.
Myth: If you have malaria, hospitalisation is a must.
Fact: Most cases of malaria are treated as out patients. Hospitalisation is required only in case of complications or if the severity of the symptoms increases. However, if you start timely treatment, hospitalisation can be avoided.
Myth: Pregnant women shouldn’t take anti-malaria drugs.
Fact: Anti-malaria drugs are safe to use in pregnancy and lactation. Like any drug, anti-malaria drugs also have some minor side-effects, but that should not stop anyone from taking these drugs. Malaria must be treated with anti-malaria drugs, or else it may deteriorate and cause serious or even fatal complications. Benefits of anti-malarial drugs far outweigh their risks.
Myth: Malaria patients should not eat chicken.
Fact: Malaria has nothing to do with what you eat. There are no dietary restrictions for those suffering from malaria and neither chicken nor any other food is known to alter the course of the illness.
Myth: Malaria stays for life.
Fact: Malaria is completely curable with simple, effective treatment. It doesn’t remain with you throughout your lifespan. But there is every chance that the infection can recur if you are once again bitten by an infested mosquito.
Myth: Once you have malaria, you’ll never get it for life.
Fact: Unlike viral infections, such as chicken pox that confer life-long protection, malaria does not confer any protection against repeat infection. The treatment is applicable for the particular attack only and once it is completed, you are still prone to get infected if you are bitten again.
Myth: Malaria spreads only in dirty surroundings.
Fact: That is what people thought in the old days and that’s how the name, ‘mal-aria’, meaning ‘bad air’, got coined. But mosquitoes that cause malaria breed in clean, stagnant collections of water such as tanks, puddles, tree holes, tyre tracks, construction sites and wells, irrespective of the cleanliness of surroundings. If you let water stay in a clean place, it can still be a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
Myth: You can prevent malaria by taking anti-malaria drugs regularly.
Fact: Taking anti-malaria drugs for prevention helps those travelling from non-malarious places to a place known for the malaria menace. These drugs, if taken as prescribed, do help even if the visit is short. The same, however, is not advisable for people already living in areas prone to malaria.
Myth: You’re not at risk of malaria if you stay on a higher floor.
Fact: The female anopheles mosquitoes that spread malaria from one person to another, bite during the night. During the day, they remain hidden and therefore are not visible. Top floors are not safe from malaria as the mosquitoes can reach any floor by flying or by travelling through elevators. The best method to protect against malaria is regular use of bed nets. Long lasting, insecticide treated bed nets are also now available. Mosquito repellents like DEET can be applied to the exposed skin or clothing in the evenings to keep mosquitoes away.

Did you know?

With more than 2.7 billion people in nearly 106 countries being exposed to the risk of getting infected, every year 400 – 550 million suffer from the disease and nearly 1.2 million die of its complications. The estimates of annual malaria burden in India range from 2.8 – 180 million cases and 1000 – 200000 deaths.

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Srinivas Bevinje
Dr Srinivas Kakkilaya Bevinje, MD, is a Mangalore-based consultant physician. His areas of interest include metabolic medicine, infectious diseases, and community health.


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