Malaria

Updated 23 October 2017

What is malaria?

Malaria is an infection of red blood cells caused by a single-celled parasite and is almost always spread by the bite of an infected female Anopheles mosquito.

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Malaria has been recognised as a disease for thousands of years. Descriptions of the disease date from as far back as 1700 BC in China, and 1570 BC in Egypt. The association between malaria and marshes (where mosquitos breed) has also been long recognised. In fact, the name “malaria” (from “bad air” in the marshes) is based on this association.

Malaria is an infection of red blood cells caused by a single-celled parasite. Malaria is almost always spread by the bite of an infected female Anopheles mosquito, but also potentially by a transfusion with contaminated blood, or an injection with a needle that was previously used by a person with the infection.

Malaria occurs most commonly in tropical areas of the world, such as Africa, Asia, and Central and South America. It was endemic in the United States and Canada at the beginning of the 20th century, but due to extensive programmes to eradicate it, is now usually only seen in the US in travellers from other parts of the world. Malaria occurs in the North Eastern parts of South Africa, particularly during rainy periods of the year.

(Dr Andrew Whitelaw, MBBCh (Witwatersrand), MSc (UCT), FCPath (Micro) (SA) Pathologist, Department of Microbiology, University of Cape Town/National Laboratory Services)

 

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