New Species of Malaria?

Malaria, the ever changing, always-evolving, world-sized killer, is responsible for 350-500-million infections and over 1,000,000 deaths per year. Further, 41% of the world’s population lives in a “malaria-risk zone.” Malaria is an illness that any traveler to the tropics needs to consider, and begin to plan for, months before a trip. And with a newly discovered species of malaria, things could only get worse.

For those of you keeping score, there are currently four types of malaria:

  • Plasmodium Ovale (uncommon outside Western Africa)
  • Plasmodium Malariae (low level infection possible for years)
  • Plasmodium Vivax (can lay dormant in liver)
  • Plasmodium Falciparum (the worst, most drug resistant)

A recent article in the Clinical Infectious Disease journal discussed a newly recognized type of malaria, not previously thought to cause illness in humans, called Plasmodium Knowlesi. The new species is thought to be frequently misdiagnosed as the more-benign form, Plasmodium Malariae. It’s also suggested to be as deadly as Plasmodium Falciparum, the worst, most drug-resistant species known today.

Malaysia suffered several deaths from what was believed to be the usually benign form of Plasmodium Malariae in recent years. Studies have shown that these cases were misdiagnosed and deaths resulted from this new species of malaria. Travelers to SE Asia, especially Malaysia, should ensure that, in the unfortunate event that they contract malaria, their diagnosis of Plasmodium Malariae is not the new, more dangerous Plasmodium Knowlesi. This is especially important if there is a high parasite load, meaning there is a lot of infection.

Always check with your primary health care provider to determine what is right for you!