Every year, roughly 1,500 people in the United States are hospitalized with malaria—even though the disease itself is eradicated here. We’re currently hitting an all-time high with the number of malaria cases in the country. In 2016 alone, we’d reached the highest rate of malaria incidences since 1972. And the numbers have continued to go up every year.
So what’s the deal? It’s pretty simple, actually. The rise in malaria cases coincides with a larger number of American citizens traveling to malarial countries and not preparing or preventing the disease before it happens.
Luckily, you can do a couple things to prepare yourself before you travel to avoid contracting malaria from pesky mosquitoes while you’re abroad.
Before you pack, pre-treat your clothes with a permethrin spray. You can find various brands at Walmart, Amazon, or outdoor equipment stores such as REI. Depending on the type you purchase, the treatment can repel mosquitoes and other bugs for several weeks—even after your clothes have been washed.
Next, head to a travel clinic or your family doctor to get medication. During your visit, the healthcare professional will discuss your choices for preventative antimalarial medication, says Vicki Sowards, a registered nurse and the director of clinical resources at Passport Health. The type of medication and your treatment plan you are given will be determined based on your medical history and travel plans.
During your travels, make sure to use bug spray, especially at dusk and dawn, Sowards advises. Take stock of your surroundings, too. You’ll want to make sure you have a mosquito net for your bed, your room is air conditioned, and the window screens don’t have any holes.
Take your medication as it was prescribed, as well. Pro-tip from someone who’s experienced it? Take the pills with milk or a meal so they’re easier on your stomach.
And remember: Just because you once lived in a malarial area, that doesn’t mean you are immune.
“Travelers who are visiting family and relatives tend to not prepare for or take malaria chemoprophylaxis,” Sowards says. “They lived in the area previously, [so] they feel they are immune.”
If you’re staying for a long time, make sure you regularly see a doctor. The embassy or consulate can help find a care provider who’s right for you.
Post-trip, it’s important to stay vigilant as malaria can manifest up to a year after you get home.
“If you develop a fever up to one year after your travel and have no other reason for it, seek medical care ASAP,” Sowards warns. “Be sure to let the medical provider know that you did travel to a malarial area. Other diseases that can be contracted by mosquitoes can cause fever, so testing is needed for a definitive diagnosis.”
Other symptoms to look out for include chills, nausea, headaches, vomiting, fatigue, muscle pain, a cough, sweating, and chest or abdominal pain.
Bottom line, it’s important to take your medication as prescribed to prevent getting ill in the first place.