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. Not really. There is one vaccine that has been approved for use, RTS, S, or Mosquirix, but it is still a long way off being universally recommended for travellers. Other vaccines are in development and hopefully soon there will be a universla vaccine.
Malaria And Dengue 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 Fine.
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 Are Travelling In The Dry Season So We Will Be Fine.
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 A 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 So I’ll Be Fine.
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 So The Rest Of The Country Will Be 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 Antimalarials.
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 Get 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 A High Risk Area For One Day So I Don’t Need Antimalarials.
The amount of time you spend in an area is a consideration for a risk assessment but this isn’t necessarily true on its own. 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 Had Awful Side Effects From 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 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.
This Natural Remedy Is Better Than Any Antimalarial.
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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“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%”.
Backpacker hotels and hostels are generally the less well maintained; if there are air conditioners in the rooms, they are probably old and unlikely to be in a good … erm … condition.
Mosquitoes breed in stagnant water; old air conditioners contain water. Ergo. they could be breeding grounds for malarial mosquitoes.
I don’t like air conditioners, so to keep mosquitoes from biting us at night – not that we have any in our non air-con house in Jakarta – we use directional fans creating an air flow over our beds.
That is very true, I did assume that the ACs would be in good working order! Haha! But I don’t know I’ve seen many backpacker places with excellent standards. You are absolutely right about the older systems and stagnant water. I have to admit though I totally prefer directional fans too in the tropics, I just think they are so much more comfortable. Thanks for the comment.
I am so scared of getting malaria, that I do carry the medication even if I am not 100% sure I will be going to malaria risk areas. My boyfriend got chicunguya in Mexico, from a mosquito bite, and it was horrible. Then again, there are cases in which people are too cautious. I worked as a tour leader in Mexico and the tourists I took around, all from the UK, were on malaria medications although there is no malaria in Mexico.
That is very true Claudia, there is a lot of fear out there too. Healthy caution is good, fear is not, and armed with the right information and the right preparation there is no reason to be afraid of malaria. As long as you are taking antimalarials (in high risk areas) and taking all the bite prevention precautions, (DEET spray, nets etc) then you have reduced the risk as much as you possibly can. The rest is down to fate, so just enjoy your travels! 🙂
I always carry malaria medication when I travel, just in case I go to malaria areas. Prevention is the key. My boyfriend got chicunguya in Mexico and it was horrible!
Completely agree about prevention! I do not envoy your boyfriend, Chikungunya is a nasty disease!
Great article! Too many people dismiss the mosquitoes saying they never get bitten when one bite is all it takes to be infected by a serious disease. To tell the truth I think it’s better to be slightly paranoid or scared than to be too blasé.
Thank you. I would never let anyone get paranoid or scared, prepared and armed with the right knowledge is more accurate I think, but you are right, either is better than blase.
You need to hear more from an African perspective. Your article was helpful tho.
Cultural perspectives are always important to me, but the medical/clinical perspective trumps all I’m afraid.
Great advice, thank you. I can’t believe how hard it is to find comprehensive, qualified advice. There’s just so much information out there you don’t know what to believe.
Thanks Rebecca, and you’re more than welcome. I know exactly what you mean, which is why I wrote this post. 🙂
Wow, I thought I was pretty knowlegeable but I actually found myself believeing a couple of these myths! Thanks for the info, very helpful.
Thanks Ben, don’t worry some of these myths are so entrenched that a lot of people believe them.
I honestly always thought Lemon oil worked!
Brilliant article! Well done on debunking all of these, you must hear them a lot!
Thank you, I certainly do!
Can you get Corona from a mosquito?
Not unless it buys you a beer, no.