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New data show a rise in travel-acquired malaria cases

New data from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), published ahead of World Malaria Day (25 April), show an increase in malaria diagnosed in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, with reported cases exceeding 2000 for the first time since 2001. Cases were confirmed in individuals who had recently been abroad. The number of cases highlights the importance of taking precautions to minimise the risk of malaria when traveling abroad.

In 2023, there were 2004 cases of malaria confirmed in England, Wales and Northern Ireland following travel abroad, compared to 1369 in 2022. The rise is linked to the resurgence of malaria in many countries and an increase in overseas travel following the removal of pandemic restrictions. The World Health Organisation reports that in 2022, global malaria cases were estimated at 249 million, surpassing pre-pandemic levels by 16 million compared to 2019.  

Malaria is a disease caused by a parasite that can be passed to humans by mosquitoes. Symptoms can be non-specific and flu-like including fever, headache, fatigue, abdominal discomfort and muscle aches. Cough and diarrhoea can also be seen. Although symptoms of malaria from several species of the Plasmodium parasite can cause severe disease, illness with Plasmodium falciparum can progress rapidly and cause life-threatening complications if prompt treatment is not given.

Following the ABCD of malaria prevention – ‘Awareness of risk, Bite prevention, Chemoprophylaxis and Diagnose promptly and treat without delay’ – can help travellers to be protected against the infection. UK travellers are reminded to seek and follow travel advice for their destination, which may include antimalarials and mosquito bite avoidance measures. There is no licensed vaccine against malaria for travellers, but vaccines are available for other travel-associated infections.

The Travel Health Pro website, supported by the UK Health Security Agency, has information on health risks in countries across the world and is a one-stop-shop for information to help people plan their trip abroad. Travellers should be aware that even if they have visited or lived in a malarious country before, they will not have the same protection against malaria as local residents and are still at risk. Travellers should consult their general practice, pharmacist, or travel clinic 4 to 6 weeks before their trip for individual advice and malaria prevention tablets where required.  

In countries with insects that spread diseases like malaria, dengue and zika, travellers can protect themselves by using insect repellent, covering exposed skin, and sleeping under a treated bed net. 

For travellers feeling unwell during their trip, it is important to seek medical help while abroad. When returning to the UK, if feeling unwell, individuals should promptly seek medical attention and ensure they inform their healthcare provider that they have been traveling recently.

Professor Peter Chiodini, Director of the UKHSA Malaria Reference Laboratory (MRL), said:   

All malaria cases are preventable and simple steps like using insect repellent, covering exposed skin, sleeping under treated bed nets and taking malaria prevention tablets can lower infection risks.

While malaria can affect anyone, the majority of Plasmodium falciparum malaria cases in the UK occur in those of African background. Even if you have visited or lived in a country before, you will not have the same protection against infections as local people and are still at risk. We are working in partnership with communities at greater risk to improve their access to and use of effective malaria prevention measures.

Dr Dipti Patel, Director of the National Travel Health Network and Centre, said: 

If you are making plans to travel abroad this year, please take a moment to prioritise your health and plan ahead. Check the relevant country information pages on our website, TravelHealthPro, and ideally speak to your GP or a travel health clinic 4-6 weeks ahead of travelling to ensure you have had all the necessary vaccinations and advice you need to ensure your trip is a happy and healthy one.

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