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Back from holiday? Here’s how to tell the difference between Covid-19 and malaria symptoms

According to Blumberg, mosquitoes may even hitch-hike in vehicles returning from malaria areas and transmit the infection to non-travellers. Picture: Supplied

According to Blumberg, mosquitoes may even hitch-hike in vehicles returning from malaria areas and transmit the infection to non-travellers. Picture: Supplied

Published Jan 17, 2021

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Thanks to the whirlwind that was 2020, the December holiday season not only came as a welcome break but also saw a dramatic resurgence in the spread of Covid-19.

Although, that didn’t stop many of us from fulfilling our holiday dreams, now that 2021 has begun and we are all home safe and sound, Covid-19 should not be the only disease on our mind, especially if you travelled to a malaria area.

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As we all come to terms with the upward trajectory of the second wave, we must be cognisant of the fact that malaria is still an epidemic of epic proportions.

If you travelled to a malaria endemic area and start to feel ill, you need to understand the differences between malaria and Covid-19 symptoms as they can be similar at stages.

According to Sherwin Charles, co-founder of social benefit organisation Goodbye Malaria, when in an endemic area, malaria may pose a more immediate threat than Covid-19.

“Yes, both diseases are potentially deadly, but we must be cognisant of what symptoms to look out for and also remember that Malaria can prove deadlier faster, it is therefore essential that you test for both Covid-19 as well as malaria..”

The most common symptoms of Covid-19 include:

  • Fever
  • Dry cough
  • Tiredness

Whereas the most common symptoms of malaria include:

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  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Headache

While there are myriad other symptoms that could present themselves, the key shared symptoms between malaria and Covid-19 is the infamous fever.

“When comparing both diseases, malaria is the more immediate threat and should be tested for and treated first. That is not to say that you should disregard any Covid-19 precautions in the process, but malaria needs to be ruled out first,” said Charles.

Professor Lucille Blumberg, Deputy Director of Epidemiology at the National Institute of Communicable Diseases, South Africans shouldn’t be afraid of travelling.

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“South Africa is not a really high risk when it comes to malaria. Even if you cross the border to a country like Mozambique, if you take the right precautions, you will be fine.”

Regarding the right malaria precautions, these are age old and never really change, except this year we have the added benefit of factoring in Covid-19.

“There are overlapping symptoms,” added Prof Blumberg. “The problem is everyone is so fixated on Covid-19 that malaria symptoms are being missed.”

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According to Blumberg, mosquitoes may even hitch-hike in vehicles returning from malaria areas and transmit the infection to non-travellers – so-called odyssean or taxi, minibus, or suitcase malaria.

She advised that malaria should be considered in any patient with “flu-like” illness that gets progressively worse over a few days, where an alternative diagnosis is not made.

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