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Malaria Is Back in the United States. Here’s What Travelers Should Do About It

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued an advisory after cases of malaria were detected in Texas and Florida—the first locally transmitted cases of the mosquito-borne disease reported in the U.S. in decades.

If there’s one illness the CDC knows inside and out, it’s malaria. Because the disease can easily kill if left untreated, the federal agency (originally known as the Communicable Disease Center) was founded in 1946 to combat the spread of malaria in the southern U.S.—a mission the agency was enormously successful at accomplishing. Malaria was considered eliminated in the United States just 5 years later.

The CDC truly helped Americans dodge untold suffering. Elsewhere in the world, malaria has killed hundreds of millions of people in the years since it was eliminated in the U.S. An estimated 619,000 died from the disease in 2021 alone, according to the World Health Organization

Despite the CDC’s efforts, you can’t keep some nasty parasites down. Every so often, malaria pops up again in the bloodstreams of an unlucky few. This time, malaria was absent from the United States for about 20 years.

The prevalence of malaria has shaped the history of the world, from affecting the political fates of many African countries to slowing the development of the American South to helping the colonies win independence during the American Revolution.

But should the return of malaria shape your summer travel plans? 

Here are a few facts to remember.  

The recent cases were of the Plasmodium vivax variety of malaria, which is less severe than many other types. 

None of the patients who contracted malaria in the United States are in mortal danger. They’re all responding to artesunate, a common treatment derived from wormwood.

All the U.S. cases so far have been locally transmitted.

In 2019, there were about 247 million cases of malaria around the world, and roughly 95% of them were in Africa.

None of the recently reported cases in the United States—around Sarasota on Florida’s west coast and in Cameron County in coastal Texas—occurred in people who had recently traveled. For that reason, the CDC is going to keep an extremely close eye on any future cases and work to mitigate potential spread.

In April, malaria popped up in Costa Rica, a popular vacation destination. Whenever Americans travel to an area experiencing an outbreak, it’s possible for them to pick up the parasite and bring it home. 

Malaria can be treated and cured as long as it’s properly diagnosed. 

The common symptoms of malaria are fever, chills, headaches, and fatigue. If you feel any of those, you should see a doctor. If you have traveled abroad or to Florida or Texas recently, let your physician know. American doctors have become so used to malaria being eradicated domestically that they might not automatically suspect you have it. 

There’s no need to take an anti-malarial drug for U.S. travel.

With just a handful of cases so far, the risk of infection is infinitesimally low. Some preventive medication for malaria can be hard on the body, so it’s not something you want to dabble in unless doctors firmly believe it’s necessary, such as when you’re traveling to parts of central Africa.

There have only been five cases in America so far. 

Obviously, that’s statistically almost nothing, as the CDC made clear in a statement released this month: “The risk of locally acquired malaria is extremely low in the United States.” (Malaria acquired abroad, i.e. not locally, is another matter.)

So if you want to avoid going to Florida or Texas this summer, it’ll have to be for other reasons. 

There is no vaccine for malaria—it’s a parasite, not a virus—so the best way to avoid it is to avoid mosquito bites.

Take the same steps you take to avoid all itchy mosquito bites. Wear loose-fitting long sleeves and pants, wear light-colored clothing, sleep under nets or behind screens, and use repellants (especially ones that contain the compound DEET). 

Europe’s colonial types used to drink gin and tonics when they were exploiting Africa, but back then, tonic contained much more mosquito-thwarting quinine than it does today. A good G&T might numb the sting of a mosquito bite, but won’t do much to keep the bugs at bay.

If you’re unlucky enough to contract malaria in the U.S. right now, your case is likely to be mild and easily treatable as long as it’s identified. 

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