What is Malaria ?

Malaria is an infectious disease caused by the parasite called Plasmodia. There are four identified species of this parasite causing human malaria, namely, Plasmodium vivax, P. falciparum, P. ovale and P. malariae. It is transmitted by the female anopheles mosquito.
Infection with P. falciparum, if not promptly treated, may lead to death.

In many parts of the world, the parasites have developed resistance to a number of malaria medicines.

Symptoms of malaria include fever, shivering, arthralgia (joint pain), vomiting, anemia (caused by hemolysis), hemoglobinuria, and convulsions. There may be the feeling of tingling in the skin, particularly with malaria caused by P. falciparum.

The classical symptom of malaria is cyclical occurrence of sudden coldness followed by rigor and then fever and sweating lasting four to six hours, occurring every two days in P. vivax and P. ovale infections, while every three for P. malariae.

P. falciparum can have recurrent fever every 36-48 hours or a less pronounced and almost continuous fever. For reasons that are poorly understood, but which may be related to high intracranial pressure, children with malaria frequently exhibit abnormal posturing, a sign indicating severe brain damage. Malaria has been found to cause cognitive impairments, especially in children. It causes widespread anemia during a period of rapid brain development and also direct brain damage. This neurologic damage results from cerebral malaria to which children are more vulnerable.

Chronic malaria is seen in both P. vivax and P. ovale, but not in P. falciparum. Here, the disease can relapse months or years after exposure, due to the presence of latent parasites in the liver. Describing a case of malaria as cured by observing the disappearance of parasites from the bloodstream can therefore be deceptive. The longest incubation period reported for a P. vivax infection is 30 years. Approximately one in five of P. vivax malaria cases in temperate areas involve overwintering by hypnozoites (i.e., relapses begin the year after the mosquito bite).

Pathogenic agent

Malaria is caused by protozoan parasites of the genus Plasmodium (phylum Apicomplexa). In humans malaria is caused by P. falciparum, P. malariae, P. ovale, P. vivax and P. knowlesi. P. falciparum is the most common cause of infection and is responsible for about 80% of all malaria cases, and is also responsible for about 90% of the deaths from malaria. Parasitic Plasmodium species also infect birds, reptiles, monkeys, chimpanzees and rodents.

There have been documented human infections with several simian species of malaria, namely P. knowlesi, P. inui, P. cynomolgi,,P. simiovale, P. brazilianum, P. schwetzi and P. simium ; however, with the exception of P. knowlesi, these are mostly of limited public health importance. Although avian malaria can kill chickens and turkeys, this disease does not cause serious economic losses to poultry farmers. However, since being accidentally introduced by humans it has decimated the endemic birds of Hawaii, which evolved in its absence and lack any resistance to it.

Mosquito vectors and the Plasmodium life cycle

The parasite’s primary (definitive) hosts and transmission vectors are female mosquitoes of the Anopheles genus. Young mosquitoes first ingest the malaria parasite by feeding on an infected human carrier and the infected Anopheles mosquitoes carry Plasmodium sporozoites in their salivary glands. A mosquito becomes infected when it takes a blood meal from an infected human. Once ingested, the parasite gametocytes taken up in the blood will further differentiate into male or female gametes and then fuse in the mosquito gut. This produces an ookinete that penetrates the gut lining and produces an oocyst in the gut wall. When the oocyst ruptures, it releases sporozoites that migrate through the mosquito’s body to the salivary glands, where they are then ready to infect a new human host. This type of transmission is occasionally referred to as anterior station transfer. The sporozoites are injected into the skin, alongside saliva, when the mosquito takes a subsequent blood meal.

Only female mosquitoes feed on blood, thus males do not transmit the disease. The females of the Anopheles genus of mosquito prefer to feed at night. They usually start searching for a meal at dusk, and will continue throughout the night until taking a meal. Malaria parasites can also be transmitted by blood transfusions, although this is rare.

More information on malaria website