16 December 2011
The Health Protection Agency (HPA) is reminding UK travellers visiting friends and family or taking winter sun holidays to ensure they take anti-malaria tablets when visiting countries where malaria is prevalent.
Although the majority of malaria cases are diagnosed in the summer months, almost 20 per cent of malaria cases in travellers arriving in the UK are diagnosed in December and January.
The majority of malaria cases diagnosed in the UK are acquired by those visiting friends and relatives in West African countries, notably Nigeria and Ghana. In 2011 so far, there have been 348 cases and two deaths reported in travellers returning from Nigeria and 170 cases in those returning from Ghana. Although these numbers are lower compared to 2010, malaria is a preventable illness and it is still clear that travellers are not protecting themselves against malaria when travelling to visit friends and relatives in high risk areas.
African countries are also a popular destination choice for UK holiday makers. The Gambia is a favoured winter sun destination for UK travellers and the majority of malaria cases associated with travel to The Gambia are typically reported between October and January each year. So far this year the HPA has had reports of 31 cases of malaria associated with travel to The Gambia, 18 of which have been reported since October. Malaria has also been reported in travellers returning from Kenya, another popular all year round destination, with 25 cases to date in 2011.
The majority of these cases had not taken the recommended preventive medication for malaria. One traveller reported taking a homeopathic remedy. There is no evidence that homeopathy is effective at either preventing or treating malaria.
Dr Jane Jones, a travel health expert at the HPA, said “All travellers to malaria risk areas – whether native to that country or not - need to be aware of the risk when travelling. Pre-travel medical advice should be sought from a GP or a travel clinic at least six weeks before travel and travellers must take medication before, during and after their trip, as well as anti-mosquito precautions while they are away, to keep safe.
“People booking last minute holidays should seek pre-travel health advice as soon as possible as, although not ideal, it is still possible to receive appropriate preventative treatment. Travel agents and online booking services also have an important role to play in advising their customers to seek appropriate travel advice.”
Professor David Hill, Director of the HPA's National Travel Health Network and Centre (NaTHNaC) added: “All travellers should seek medical attention promptly if they develop symptoms of malaria while abroad or up to one year after returning, and they should tell their doctor they have been to a malaria risk area.
“The advice to medical staff is to take a detailed travel history and consider malaria in every ill patient who has recently returned from the tropics. For those with a fever, malaria should be considered until proven otherwise, especially during the winter months when seasonal flu means malaria could be misdiagnosed.”
Malaria is a preventable parasitic disease transmitted by mosquitoes. It is predominantly a disease affecting Africa, South and Central America, Asia, Oceania and the Middle East. The symptoms include a flu-like illness, fever, shaking, headache, muscle aches and tiredness. Nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea may also occur.
Anyone who visits a malaria-endemic country is at risk of acquiring malaria if they do not take precautions. This includes UK travellers who may have grown up or lived in a malaria-endemic country and now returning to visit friends or family. Babies and children, especially those born outside the tropics, can get very sick with malaria very quickly. It is also particularly dangerous for pregnant women, who should avoid visits to malaria affected areas.
Although there have been reductions in case numbers associated with some of the winter destinations highlighted here, latest annual figures from the HPA revealed that total malaria infections have in fact increased for the second year running with 1,761 cases reported in 2010 compared with 1,495 in 2009 and 1,370 in 2008. This is an overall increase of nearly 30 per cent since 2008.
Last reviewed: 16 December 2011