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Malaria Facts for Parents and Families

[Article provided by the Pediatric Pandemic Network]

Malaria is a parasitic disease transmitted by mosquitos and can present a wide variety of symptoms. Although malaria can be a mild illness with no symptoms at all, it can be associated with severe symptoms such as high fever, chills, and body aches, like the flu. Occasionally, malaria can cause severe infection resulting in organ failure and even death.

In the United States, malaria infections are usually associated with travel from a country where malaria is common. Countries in Africa are most significantly impacted by malaria, followed by areas of Latin America and Asia including South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. Malaria is also sometimes seen in parts of the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, and the South Pacific. Malaria is very rarely acquired in the U.S., but recently, a few people in Florida and Texas have acquired malaria.

Malaria is transmitted by infected female Anopheles mosquitos.  These insects pick up the parasite by biting someone who already has the infection. When they bite a second person, a new infection is transmitted. Rarely, malaria can be passed from a pregnant person to their unborn child. It is possible to transmit malaria through blood transfusion, organ donation, or shared needles with an infected person. These are uncommon.  

What are the best ways to prevent malaria?

The best way to prevent malaria is to avoid mosquito bites. Prevention strategies include applying mosquito-repellants, wearing clothes that minimize exposed skin, and using insecticide-treated bed nets if sleeping outside. Not all mosquito repellants are equally effective or safe in children. The CDC recommends products with DEET, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus, or picardin.  Whenever using insect repellents, follow the directions on the label. The EPA has a resource to help find the repellant that is right for you.   

Check with your health care provider before visiting any tropical or subtropical area at high risk for malaria. Your health care provider may prescribe anti-malarial drugs to prevent the disease. These may be taken before, during, and/or after travel.

How does malaria present in kids?

When a child or adult has malaria, their symptoms are very similar to other common illnesses. Your child may first complain of being irritable, tired, not hungry, and not being able to sleep.  These symptoms are followed by chills and then a fever with fast breathing. The fever may either gradually rise over 1 to 2 days or spike very suddenly.  Children with malaria usually appear very ill and have a very high fever in the days after being infected. 

How is malaria diagnosed?

Health care providers may suspect malaria based on a person’s symptoms, physical examination, and understanding if a person lives in an endemic area. The health care provider may also ask about recent travel history. If suspecting malaria, a health care provider might take a blood sample to check under a microscope for malaria parasites, which are seen inside infected red blood cells.

How is malaria treated in kids?

If your health care provider has diagnosed malaria, they will treat your child with anti-malaria medications given by mouth or through an intravenous (IV) line depending on the parasite causing the illness and the severity of illness.  The child may be treated at home for a few days or in the hospital if IV medications are needed.  Your health care provider will also be looking for signs of dehydration, trouble breathing, and signs of malaria complications identified by laboratory tests.

More information for parents and families:

CDC – Malaria – About Malaria – FAQs

Malaria (for Parents) – Seattle Children’s Hospital (kidshealth.org)

Malaria – MotherToBaby

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