Today is World Malaria Day. It seems timely because Malaria has been on my mind a lot lately.
My 21-year-old niece, Erica, recently returned from six months in Togo working for the non-profit Youth With A Mission.
Right before flying home she started to feel ill. During a long layover in Hawaii, a nurse told her that she was just dehydrated, but after Erica boarded her flight for Seattle, her symptoms worsened. She started having hallucinations, fever and chills.
“The flight attendant brought me a cup of water. I thought, I should drink, I’m dehydrated, but I couldn’t move my hand to pick up the cup,” she told me later.
When the plane landed, she was taken by a waiting ambulance to the hospital and was admitted to intensive care with cerebral malaria, a rare, but often fatal strain of the disease that overall causes nearly one million deaths annually worldwide.
Most people in the U.S. are fortunate enough not to have any experience with malaria. There are only about 25-40 cases reported in our state each year.
“Malaria is not prevalent in Seattle,” said Lee Schoentrup, communications director of Seattle Biomedical Research Institute. “The only cases here have to do with travelers that have come back [from a country where malaria is prevalent] or airport malaria – where a mosquito has gotten on to a plane.”
Malaria was eradicated in the US in the 1950’s through improved sanitation, draining of breeding grounds and DDT spraying. So if you get bit on a lovely spring evening in Seattle, a little itching is the worst you have to worry about.
But in other countries, especially in Africa, the problem is deadly, and even on the rise in some places.
“We can think about malaria not just from a health standpoint, but also from economic standpoint,” stated Schoentrup. “In sub-Saharan Africa, 25 percent of the population cannot work because they are sick with malaria or are caring for somebody who is sick. They cannot be members of the economy.”
To put that in to perspective, Washington State’s unemployment rate considered to be high right now at 8.3 percent. Imagine a quarter of your friends and family laid up in bed unable to work, at any given time.
My niece Erica was fortunate enough to have access to expensive medical treatment in the US. She has since recovered from her illness and has resumed all her former activities.
But she also learned some hard lessons. She had stopped taking her anti-malarial pills in Africa because she was worried about the medication’s impact on her liver. It was the dry season and she didn’t see a lot of mosquitoes, so she figured she was safe.
“I realize how severe malaria is,” she said, looking ahead to her return to Togo. “When people have it I will have more compassion.”
World Malaria Day was established by the WHO five years ago to promote education and understanding of the disease. But after my niece’s close call, this year it feels like a day worth celebrating.
How to avoid malaria while traveling:
1. Check out the Centers for Disease Control map to see if you are traveling in an area experiencing malaria
2. See a travel specialist physician before you go, if you are visiting countries that are malaria endemic. Different countries require different medication.
3. Take your medicine as prescribed, and sleep under an insecticide treated mosquito net
Rose Marie Gai is a Seattle native, married, mother of three who is studying Journalism at the University of Washington. Both of her daughters graduated from UW and hopefully soon so will their mom. She enjoys traveling to Italy where she has family.