Malaria is caused by single-celled microorganisms of the Plasmodium group. The disease is most commonly spread by an infected female Anopheles mosquito. The mosquito bite introduces the parasites from the mosquito’s saliva into a person’s blood. The parasites travel to the liver where they mature and reproduce. Five species of Plasmodium can infect and be spread by humans. Most deaths are caused by P. falciparum, whereas P. vivax, P. ovale, and P. malariae generally cause a milder form of malaria.. The species P. knowlesi rarely causes disease in humans. Malaria is typically diagnosed by the microscopic examination of blood using blood films, or with antigen-based rapid diagnostic tests. Methods that use the polymerase chain reaction to detect the parasite’s DNA have been developed, but are not widely used in areas where malaria is common due to their cost and complexity.
The risk of disease can be reduced by preventing mosquito bites through the use of mosquito nets and insect repellents or with mosquito-control measures such as spraying insecticides and draining standing water. Several medications are available to prevent malaria in travellers to areas where the disease is common. Occasional doses of the combination medication sulfadoxine/pyrimethamine are recommended in infants and after the first trimester of pregnancy in areas with high rates of malaria. As of 2020, there is one vaccine which has been shown to reduce the risk of malaria by about 40% in children in Africa. A pre-print study of another vaccine has shown 77% vaccine efficacy, but this study has not yet passed peer review. Efforts to develop more effective vaccines are ongoing. The recommended treatment for malaria is a combination of antimalarial medications that includes artemisinin. The second medication may be either mefloquine, lumefantrine, or sulfadoxine/pyrimethamine. Quinine, along with doxycycline, may be used if artemisinin is not available. It is recommended that in areas where the disease is common, malaria is confirmed if possible before treatment is started due to concerns of increasing drug resistance. Resistance among the parasites has developed to several antimalarial medications; for example, chloroquine-resistant P. falciparum has spread to most malarial areas, and resistance to artemisinin has become a problem in some parts of Southeast Asia.
The disease is widespread in the tropical and subtropical regions that exist in a broad band around the equator. This includes much of sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In 2019 there were 229 million cases of malaria worldwide resulting in an estimated 409,000 deaths. Approximately 94% of the cases and deaths occurred in Sub-Saharan Africa. Rates of disease have decreased from 2010 to 2014 but increased from 2015 to 2019. Malaria is commonly associated with poverty and has a significant negative effect on economic development. In Africa, it is estimated to result in losses of US$12 billion a year due to increased healthcare costs, lost ability to work, and adverse effects on tourism.
Methods used to prevent malaria include medications, mosquito elimination and the prevention of bites. As of 2020, there is one vaccine for malaria (known as RTS,S) which is licensed for use. The presence of malaria in an area requires a combination of high human population density, high anopheles mosquito population density and high rates of transmission from humans to mosquitoes and from mosquitoes to humans. If any of these is lowered sufficiently, the parasite eventually disappears from that area, as happened in North America, Europe, and parts of the Middle East. However, unless the parasite is eliminated from the whole world, it could re-establish if conditions revert to a combination that favors the parasite’s reproduction. Furthermore, the cost per person of eliminating anopheles mosquitoes rises with decreasing population density, making it economically unfeasible in some areas.
Prevention of malaria may be more cost-effective than treatment of the disease in the long run, but the initial costs required are out of reach of many of the world’s poorest people. There is a wide difference in the costs of control (i.e. maintenance of low endemicity) and elimination programs between countries. For example, in China—whose government in 2010 announced a strategy to pursue malaria elimination in the Chinese provinces—the required investment is a small proportion of public expenditure on health. In contrast, a similar programme in Tanzania would cost an estimated one-fifth of the public health budget.
In areas where malaria is common, children under five years old often have anaemia, which is sometimes due to malaria. Giving children with anaemia in these areas preventive antimalarial medication improves red blood cell levels slightly but does not affect the risk of death or need for hospitalisation.