DC-area doctor gives tips on malaria prevention

Cases of malaria have recently been discovered in Florida and Texas, and a local doctor said there are steps that people can take to prevent getting the disease.

“If someone has a febrile illness of unknown origin, we should certainly think about malaria,” Dr. Melissa Holland, chief medical officer, UnitedHealthcare Medicare and Retirement for the Mid-Atlantic region, told WTOP. “This is confirmed on blood tests.”

She said that malaria is a mosquito-borne disease caused by a parasite called plasmodium that’s primarily transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected mosquito.

“Initially, individuals will have chills, fevers, headaches, muscle aches and fatigue and can also experience nausea, diarrhea and vomiting if left untreated,” Holland said. “It can progress to organ failure and death.”

How do you prevent getting malaria?

“Since malaria is a mosquito-borne illness, you certainly take steps to prevent those mosquito bites,” she said.

Holland said the best repellent available is DEET, the active chemical ingredient in many insect repellent products.

“This is recognized as the gold standard and it’s the most common insect repellent,” she said.

She said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics both report that DEET is safe for both adults and children.

Other options, according to Holland, include picaridin — which is similar to DEET but does not irritate the skin — and permethrin, which isn’t sprayed on skin, but instead sprayed on clothing and gear.

“And then if you’re looking for a natural repellent, oil of lemon eucalyptus is also a good option,” Holland said. “And most of these available products in the U.S. are registered with the EPA.”

The CDC reports that locally-acquired mosquito-borne malaria has not occurred in the United States since 2003, when eight cases were identified in Palm Beach County, Florida.

What should you be looking out for if you do get a mosquito bite?

“In the beginning, the symptoms will include fevers, chills, sweats, headaches, nausea, vomiting, body aches and fatigue,” Holland said. “So not unlike what we would see with maybe the flu, with the exception of the respiratory component.”

She said as it progresses, it can become more severe and cause kidney failure, respiratory problems, seizures and even confusion and coma.

If you have any of these symptoms, she said to go to the doctor and see if you should be tested for malaria.

“Certainly if someone tests positive for malaria, early treatment is key and treatment will depend upon several factors including disease severity, the species of malaria that’s actually causing the infection and in which part of the world the infection was acquired,” she said.

WTOP’s Sandra Jones contributed to this report. 

Valerie Bonk

Valerie Bonk started working at WTOP in 2016 and has lived in Howard County, Maryland, her entire life. She's thrilled to be a reporter for WTOP telling stories on air. She works as both a television and radio reporter in the Maryland and D.C. areas. 

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