Colds and flu

Updated 29 May 2015

Is it flu or malaria? Don't take risks, warns doctor

With flu season upon us, anyone presenting flu-like symptoms after returning from a high risk malaria area must seek medical attention urgently, a medical specialist tells Health24.


Any fever or flu-like illnesses should be thoroughly probed for malaria for people who return from areas where the mosquito-borne disease is high risk, cautioned Professor Lucille Blumberg who is a deputy director at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD).

Malaria is a disease caused by a parasite, called Plasmodium, which is transmitted to people by the female Anopheles mosquito. The parasites multiply rapidly in the liver and red blood cells of the infected person. Symptoms present one to two weeks after a person is infected.

Read: South Africans warned of severe flu strains

"As we move into flu season, any fever and flu-like illness in people who recently travelled to a known malaria area in the previous month must be investigated and managed as possible malaria until disproven and that must be done urgently," she told Health24.

Prof Blumberg said the reason for this is because the symptoms of malaria overlap with those of flu. She said these include headache, fever, body pain and breaking out in cold sweats.

Winter is known for seeing an increase in influenza cases and South Africans have already been warned that this year's strains are virulent. This could make it easy for some people to think that they are coming down with the flu when they could actually be displaying symptoms of malaria.

Prof Blumberg said although malaria has a peak season which is usually from September to May, she added that the mosquito-borne disease can occur throughout the year. "Winter is not a no-risk season but obviously it is lower," she said.

Dr Jaishree Raman, who is a medical scientist working in the parasitology reference laboratory at the NICD, said unfortunately in South Africa malaria is frequently misdiagnosed.

She said factors relating to the misdiagnosis include that the signs and symptoms of uncomplicated malaria are non-specific, resulting in a rapid progression to severe malaria and often death.

"It is therefore imperative that anyone who experiences fevers, headaches and joint pains after visiting a malaria area, irrespective of malaria season, gets tested for malaria and commences with treatment as soon as possible."

ER24 has also called on travellers to take precautions against malaria.

"ER24 is urging people to take precautions against the life-threatening disease when travelling to a high-risk area," it said in a statement in April.

In South Africa, malaria is endemic in parts of north eastern KwaZulu-Natal, parts of Mpumalanga and Limpopo, while high-risk African countries include the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Mozambique, Angola, Kenya and Malawi.

ER24 said it is vital for people to take medication prior to visiting a high-risk area to reduce chances of being infected. It also added that when visiting these areas one should:

- Wear long-sleeved clothing and long pants especially at dusk and dawn when mosquitoes are most active.
- Use insect repellents that are available in the form of lotion and spray for example.
- Close doors and windows between dusk and dawn.
- Use a mosquito net.

People who are at a higher risk of being infected by malaria include young children as well as pregnant women and people from non-endemic areas.

Also read:

Drug-resistant malaria: A threat to SA

How to beat colds and flu naturally

Why you should get the flu jab


Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Ask the Expert

Flu expert

Dr Heidi van Deventer completed her MBChB (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) degree in 2004 at the University of Stellenbosch.
She has additional training in ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support) and PALS (Paediatric Advanced Life Support) as well as biostatistics and epidemiology.

Dr Van Deventer is currently working as a researcher at the Desmond Tutu Tuberculosis Centre at the University of Stellenbosch.

Still have a question?

Get free advice from our panel of experts

The information provided does not constitute a diagnosis of your condition. You should consult a medical practitioner or other appropriate health care professional for a physical exmanication, diagnosis and formal advice. Health24 and the expert accept no responsibility or liability for any damage or personal harm you may suffer resulting from making use of this content.

* You must accept our condition

Forum Rules