Malaria is a mosquito borne disease that still has so many myths, lies and misconceptions about it that travellers are at a real risk of following the wrong advice. This article debunks some of the most common misconceptions about malaria so that travellers can get the right, qualified advice on how to protect themselves.
As a nurse people often ask me for advice on travel health, and through my online travel clinic I have probably heard every excuse and myth, lie and misinformed opinion about malaria and antimalarials under the sun. Here are some of the most common myths, half truths and misconceptions I hear on an almost daily basis with some actual facts to give you the truth behind the myth.
Malaria isn’t fatal.
Not true. Not every case of malaria is fatal of course, in fact the majority are not if treated in time, but it can kill. In 2014 alone there were an estimated 584, 000 deaths from malaria.
There is a vaccine for malaria.
No, there isn’t. There are vaccines in development and the current research looks really promising, but they are years off being ready yet, never mind being commercially available.
Malaria and dengue fever are the same thing.
No they aren’t. They have similar initial symptoms and are both contracted from mosquito bites but they are two very different diseases. You can read about the differences here.
Insects never bite me, so I’ll be safe from mosquitoes and malaria.
Mosquitoes don’t discriminate, and they don’t have preferred eat out joints. If you happen to be there and they are ready to feed, you are a target. It only takes one bite from an infected mosquito to contract the disease.
We’re travelling in the dry season so mosquitoes won’t bite us or be around.
In tropical regions that have a wet and dry season there is a slight fluctuation in mosquito activity but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still active year round and that doesn’t mean you are immune from being bitten in one season over another. Although mosquitoes are more active in the wet season, they don’t suddenly disappear as soon as the dry season rolls around and you are still at risk of being bitten.
If I eat or drink this particular item it will keep mosquitoes away.
Garlic or fizzy tonic water are the foods and drinks that seem to crop up the most with this myth but to be honest I have heard everything from certain vitamin supplements to cranberry juice being used, with a lot of people under the mistaken impression that mosquitoes won’t go near them if they reek of garlic or are filled with any given food or drink. It is not true. Blood is blood, and mosquitoes are not fussy gourmet food critics.
I’m staying in nice hotels with air con, that will protect us from mosquitoes and malaria.
Air con rooms do reduce the risk of being bitten at night because there is a much lower chance of mosquitoes getting in the room, but it is not 100%, and since I highly doubt you will spend every second of your trip in your room and will probably venture outside at some point, you will still need other mosquito protection too, and you will still need antimalarials if you are in a high risk area.
The city I am in is low risk of malaria, so I’ll be fine in the rest of the country too.
Not always true. Although some countries are entirely no to low risk, others – such as Thailand – have low to no risk areas and high risk areas. It is important you do your research and know exactly what the situation is in the areas you are heading to. If you will be spending any time in a high risk area, then by definition you are at risk.
I always use DEET so I don’t need antimalarial medication.
Prevention methods such as DEET spray are both effective and essential, but they are only part of the solution when you are in a high risk area. Whilst using prevention methods alone in a low to no risk area is fine, if you are travelling to any area that is considered high risk, then antimalarials are a must too.
I don’t have a reaction when bitten, so I’m safe from Malaria.
No you’re not. Everyone reacts differently to a mosquito bite. Some will show no reaction, others will have painful, itchy bumps that will need antihistamines. Either way that is no indication of whether the mosquito that bites you had malaria or not, or if you caught it or not.
I’m only in the high risk area for one day/a short stopover, so it isn’t worth getting antimalarials.
A high risk area is a high risk area regardless of the length of time spent in it. True, the chances of you getting bitten by an infected mosquito rise the longer you spend in that region, as does the need for you to take antimalarials, but on the same token you may get bitten five minutes after leaving the airport. It only takes one bite from one infected mosquito to contract malaria. Seek professional advice on what medication and length of course you need for where you are going.
Everyone says they suffered awful side effects of antimalarials and I shouldn’t take them.
Every drug has side effects, and every drug will effect different individuals differently. Just because one person suffered side effects, that doesn’t mean the next person will. That is why it is essential too speak to a professional in enough time before your trip and see exactly which medication is right for you. That way you can minimise the negative side effects and still protect yourself. It may not always be a perfect balance, but it will be a balance.
All antimalarial prophylaxis have the same side effects.
No they don’t. There is a range of different prophylaxis available, all with different side effects. And all these medications will effect different people differently.
Antimalarial side effects are so bad, they are worse than malaria.
No. Some people do suffer extreme reactions to some antimalarials (not every antimalarial is the same either) it is true, but they are in the minority. The absolute majority may only have some mild symptoms and many have none at all. At the end of the day malaria can seriously knock you off your feet for a long time, and can in some cases even be fatal. On balance, I’d rather take the antimalarials than take the risk of malaria.
If I take this drink/food/herbal remedy it will stop me from getting malaria and has no side effects.
There are so many apocryphal tales of magic local foods and remedies that stop you getting malaria it is impossible to list them all, but there is no scientific proof or evidence to suggest they work. There IS scientific evidence to show that antimalarials work. Guess which one I will recommend?
These are just some of the most common myths and misconceptions about malaria and antimalarials, but there are many, many more. If you are setting off on your own round the world adventure and will be in any area that is mid to high risk or even any area that is plagued by mosquitoes, then it is essential that you arm yourself with the right information before you go. Read up on as much information as you can from trusted sources such as the National Travel Health Network and Centre (NaTHNaC) website or the Centre of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website. The NHS’ Fit For Travel is also an excellent resource for travellers.
If you have further questions after that seek advice from a qualified professional. The Bemused Backpacker online Travel Clinic is a good place to start.
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