5 tips to guarding against malaria while travelling

Malaria is a common and life-threatening disease that is a very real risk for travellers flying to tropical and subtropical areas in over 100 countries.

Being a disease with fatal consequences, it's essential to know how to spot the symptoms, as a prompt diagnosis can mean the difference between life and death.

One top symptom to note is a fever occurring one week or more after entering a malaria risk area - and up to three months after departure.

It is a medical emergency that requires urgent action.

However, the sad thing is that malaria in travellers can usually be prevented. All they have to do is to follow certain principles listed below.

1. It can happen to you

First off, be aware of the reality of the dangers.

Malaria is the leading cause of death from infectious disease among expatriates and business travellers, said Dr Philippe Guibert, Regional Medical Director for Consulting Services, South and South East Asia of International SOS.

Malaria remains one of the world's major diseases. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are 250 million malaria cases annually and up to one million malaria-related deaths.

Yet the risks of the disease are often misunderstood and under-estimated.

"Expatriates, in particular, often dismiss the threat simply because they have lived in a malaria endemic area for a period of years," Dr Guibert told YourHealth

Some travellers mistakenly think they are "immune" just because they have had only mild infection or no cases in the past, he said.

He added that evidence has shown that only people who grow up in a malarial area and have suffered multiple malaria infections become partially immune to the infection.

Everyone else is at risk of severe malaria, including those who grew up in a malarial area but who have been away for a year or two.

Additionally, even when partial immunity is acquired, it only relates to the strain of malaria to which the person was exposed in childhood - not necessarily providing protection to other kinds of malaria.

An estimated 30,000 international travellers fall ill with the disease annually.

This makes it an especial concern for business travellers, not just for employees, but for organisations as well.

If not controlled and managed appropriately, the impact of the disease on employee health, workforce productivity, business continuity, company reputation and healthcare costs can be significant.

If you are unsure of whether you are travelling to a malaria prone area, seek the advice of your healthcare professional.

Learn the basics

2. Learn the basics of protecting yourself

Travellers should follow WHO's ABCD Malaria Precautions:

A. Be Aware of the risk, the incubation period and the main symptoms

B. Avoid being Bitten by mosquitoes, especially between dusk and dawn

C. Take antimalarial drugs (Chemoprophylaxis) to suppress infection where appropriate

D. Immediately seek Diagnosis and treatment if a fever develops one week or more after entering an area where there is a malaria risk, and up to 3 months after departure.

Travellers need to take any approved medications prescribed by their healthcare specialist, to ensure they will not get the disease if bitten by an infected mosquito.

In addition to these drugs - which need to be taken from the departure date until one month after return - travellers need to limit their outdoor exposure from dusk to dawn, regularly apply repellents on their skin and clothes, and sleep under a bed net sprayed with insecticides.

4. Learn how to spot the symptoms

Caused by the parasite Plasmodium, malaria is transmitted via the bites of infected mosquitoes.

You will not be able to tell immediately if you have been bitten by an infected mosquito, as they exhibit no signs of carrying the parasite.

In the human body, the parasites multiply in the liver, and then infect red blood cells.

Symptoms include fever, headache and vomiting, and usually appear between 10 and 15 days after the mosquito bite.

If not treated, malaria can quickly become life-threatening by disrupting the blood supply to vital organs.

Know what to do

5. Know what to do

First off, seek immediate treatment at the nearest medical facility, Dr Guibert advised.

When treated early and properly, a patient with malaria can expect a complete recovery, he said.

Not just the responsibility of an individual

With the ease of travelling nowadays, companies are sending their employees on business trips more and more often.

And many of these trips land them in Asian tropical countries - the hotspots of malaria.

Yet companies rarely believe there's a need to protect their workers against malaria.

Putting aside the duty of care, an outbreak can potentially render a high percentage of a workforce unfit within a few weeks.

Dr Guibert shared that In West Africa for example, some mining operations have recorded up to 25 per cent of the workforce unfit to work in any one month, entirely due to malaria.

International SOS, a global medical and security assistance company, has launched an integrated malaria program that addresses each aspect of malaria prevention, control, diagnosis and treatment.

The services the company offers include risk evaluation, employee education, and the design and implementation of malaria control programs that may include vector control measures and proper medical management.

The company also offers the peace of mind that comes with an assurance that appropriate medical resources are made available for employees, especially those travelling and working in endemic malaria locations.