Protecting international travelers from malaria

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GEORGIA – Adam Weiss first contracted malaria in 2003 following a trip to Ghana. Within days, his body was gripped by debilitating symptoms: chills, fever, severe body aches and joint pains.

“I was ill enough to be laid up in bed with IVs for three days,” said Weiss, 32, who is based in Georgia but at the time was working as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in the northern region of Ghana.

Weiss, who is normally fit and healthy, said, “I was hit really hard by the symptoms. I could no longer sit upright in a chair and very much had to be taken care of.”

“It was the most memorable pain you can experience. It was a very severe case.”

High-risk malaria areas

Weiss, who is now assistant director of the Guinea Worm Eradication Program at the Carter Center, said because of his work he often visits high-risk malaria areas.

Although he has contracted malaria more than once, he says over time he has learned more about the disease and the importance of taking precautions. During the last few years, despite frequent trips to malaria-risk zones, he has not been infected.

“I lived in Ethiopia for a year and slept with an insecticide as a religion, ” he said. “If people take preventative action it can really make an impact.”

Weiss’s rapid decline in health when he first contracted malaria in 2003 highlights the measures travelers need to take when visiting high-risk areas.

To cut down the risk of contracting the disease, antimalarial drugs combined with applying insect repellent to exposed skin, sleeping under an insecticide-treated net and house-spraying to protect from mosquitoes are the best options.

No vaccine, no cure

Malaria is a mosquito-borne disease caused by a parasite, which, if left untreated, can lead to severe complications or even death. There still is not a vaccine or cure. In most cases, though, carriers of the sickle-cell gene are more resistant to malaria.

According to the latest WHO estimate, there were about 219 million cases of malaria and 655,000 deaths in 2010. Africa is the most affected continent — with the majority of deaths occurring there.

Indeed, even though over the past decade great strides have been made to decrease malaria deaths, it still remains of the biggest killers of infants in developing countries. The most disturbing fact is that it is easily preventable with simple precautions such as insecticide-treated bed nets.

Malaria, nonetheless, is not only prevalent in Africa; places like Haiti, Central and South America, the Dominican Republic, the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and Oceania, are also considered malaria-risk areas.

Rolling back malaria

In fact, every year, millions of U.S. residents travel to countries where the disease is present and about 1,500 cases of malaria are diagnosed in the United States every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a U.S. federal agency based in Georgia.

World Malaria Day is commemorated each April 25 and provides an opportunity to reflect on the status of global efforts to “roll back malaria.” Georgia’s CDC, alongside its global partners, has been at the forefront of global efforts to reduce malaria deaths.

As a matter of fact, the agency began in 1946 to control malaria in the U.S. and continues to provide leadership and expertise in global malaria control activities.

Now, institutes such as Georgia’s Carter Center and Atlanta’s Emory University have also become heavily involved with assisting in malaria awareness, prevention, treatment and eventual eradication.

New film keeps malaria center stage

Indeed, only last week, the two organizations worked in partnership to host the Atlanta premiere of the HBO film Mary and Martha. Starring Oscar-winner Hilary Swank and Brenda Blethyn, the feature-length film tells the story of two Western women who lose their sons to malaria.

Established in 2007, the Carter Center’s Malaria Control Program works with the national programs in Ethiopia and Nigeria — two of the world’s most affected countries — to help prevent and treat malaria. It is also working to accelerate the elimination of malaria and lymphatic filariasis from Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

“We have purchased and distributed millions of insecticidal bed nets, provided education at the grassroots level, reacted to outbreaks of epidemics and helped with access to diagnosis.” said Paul Emerson, co-director of the center’s Malaria Control Program.

No excuse for doing nothing

The center works closely with Emory University’s Institute for Developing Nations, which encourages scholarship in partnership with Carter Center programs that promote human rights and alleviate human suffering.

“The relationship between scholars and practitioners is extremely important because so many aspects of malaria continue to evolve very rapidly,” said Dr. Sita Ranchod-Nilsson, Director, Emory University’s Institute for Developing Nations.

“Even though there’s been great progress, particularly with insecticidal nets, malaria remains an evolving target not only in terms of clinical science but the impact of climate change and the social dimensions to community health.

With the work of CDC, Emory and the Carter Center, and other global organizations, the hope is that one day malaria will be eliminated. But Emerson says the fact that there isn’t a vaccine or cure is “no excuse for doing nothing.”

“I absolutely believe that every death from malaria is a tragedy because there shouldn’t be any,” said Emerson. “It’s preventable, diagnosable and treatable. There is absolutely no reason people should die from malaria. It’s intolerable and unacceptable.”

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