Tue, Apr 03, 2007 - Page 16 News List

Just one bite

Many travelers in Asia are inclined to ignore the risks posed by malaria, but the consequences can be fatal

By Mark Honigsbaum  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Scientist James Mutunga who specializes in mosquito research, holds up a tube containing mosquito larvae to be taken to a laboratory and tested for malaria, Karatina, Kenya, Nov. 7, 2006.

PHOTO: AP

Jo Yirrell will never forget the moment her son Harry stepped off the plane from Ghana. "His feet were filthy, but otherwise he was the picture of health," she says. "The first thing he said was, 'Mum, as soon as I can raise the money I want to go back.'"

Harry had been teaching English in a small fishing village. "Many of the children at the school had malaria," says Jo. "Harry couldn't bear to see them suffer so he gave his pills away. He told me he didn't get malaria so he didn't think it mattered. It was the most stupid thing he ever did."

Harry spent three months in Ghana and eight days after his return to the UK he developed a headache and what he thought were flu-like symptoms. Less than a week later, the strapping 1.78m rugby player was dead, following a massive infection with falciparum malaria, the deadliest form of the parasitical disease. He was just 20 years old.

In 2005, there were 1,754 cases of imported malaria in the UK — 94 more than in 2004 — and 11 deaths, 10 of which were caused by falciparum. Nearly every case could have been avoided if the travelers had followed a course of malaria prophylaxis. Yet while travel to Africa, India and south-east Asia has soared in the past decade, surveys show that half of those jetting off to the tropics take no medical advice at all before leaving, while many, like Harry, fail for one reason or another to take their prescribed medication.

To educate the public about the very real dangers of malaria, Harry's mother has now become an ambassador for a new Malaria Hotspots campaign. "The medical profession needs to be much blunter about the dangers of malaria," says Jo. "They need to say, 'This thing can kill you if you don't take your medication. At the moment, that's not happening nearly enough.'"

The truth about malaria

Myth: I hardly ever get bitten and barely react to bites so I should be safe.

Fact: It takes only one bite to contract malaria.

Myth: I’m going in the dry season, so I will be fine.

Fact: In wet seasons mosquito activity is increased. However, they breed wherever there is stagnant water and may still be active in the dry season.

Myth: Antimalarials are not 100 percent effective so there is no point taking them.

Fact: Antimalarials are between 90 percent and 100 percent effective, and in combination with good bite prevention can help to prevent you contracting malaria.

Myth: I am taking homeopathic medicines to protect against malaria so I should be safe.

Fact: There is no evidence that homeopathic or herbal medication will protect you. Neither is there evidence that yeast extracts such as Marmite or other products that contain vitamin B will repel mosquitoes.


There are many myths about malaria, but perhaps the biggest of all is that westerners do not need to worry about a disease that claims 3,000 lives every day in sub-Saharan Africa and is responsible for an estimated three million deaths worldwide every year. A common argument is that because no anti-malarial medicine is 100 percent effective and many types have unpleasant side-effects, there is no point in taking a prophylactic if you are going to be in the tropics for prolonged periods.

In fact, although there is growing evidence that parasites are becoming resistant to drugs in some parts of south-east Asia and Africa, prophylactics such as Lariam (mefloquine) and Malarone (atovaquone/proguanil) are between 90 percent and 100 percent effective when used with bite-avoidance measures, such as covering up at night when the mosquitoes are most active, and sleeping under a permethrin-treated mosquito net. And although it is true that in rare cases Lariam has been associated with depression and psychosis, the disease is still far worse than the cure. Ask Alex Beard, another ambassador for Malaria Hotspots.

Two years ago, Beard, now 22 and a freelance journalist, also traveled to Ghana and contracted malaria. Before leaving the UK she had taken medical advice and was given a course of prophylactics. She also bought a mosquito net. But within weeks of arriving at student digs at the University of Ghana, in Accra, she discarded the net because of the heat.

Four months later she set off with two friends across West Africa. En route to Burkina Faso she must have forgotten to take her medication for on arrival in the south of the country she fell ill. "It began with a pain in my stomach," she says. "The next thing I knew, I was having difficulty lifting a glass to my mouth."

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