Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

Be aware of the similarities between malaria and Covid-19, experts warn

With South Africa’s intensive care units crammed full of Covid-19 patients, even as the second infection surge slowly wanes, a new warning about malaria’s starkly similar initial presenting symptoms was issued on Thursday.


Professor Lucille Blumberg, epidemiology deputy director at the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) and a veteran of disease-outbreak monitoring and prevention issued the warning at a webinar.


She said that, with recent heavy rains in traditional malaria regions, it is now peak malaria season, meaning more infected patients present with Covid-19-like symptoms. With Covid-19 so ubiquitous and top of mind for most healthcare workers, malaria could easily be misdiagnosed, leading to delays in appropriate treatment and progression to severe disease, increasing pressure on hospitals’ intensive care units.

“The symptoms overlap with Covid-19, so we need to always check whether patients live in or have travelled to a malaria area within the last month — and do malaria tests. These results are usually very quick compared to Covid-19 tests, which can take days, meaning the opportunity to treat uncomplicated malaria can be lost,” she said.

Blumberg said, if it is caught early on, malaria is highly responsive to first-line drugs. One symptom of well-progressed malaria that’s identical to Covid-19 is Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (Ards).

“Not all Ards is Covid-19 — so get that travel and residential history — but ideally, we need to be treating malaria long before it becomes difficult,” she warned clinicians.

Among malaria, complications are fluid in the lungs and shortness of breath, which can easily be misdiagnosed as Covid-19. Both conditions look the same on an X-ray.

“Not everything with fever or breathing fast is Covid. Also, fever, headaches and fatigue overlap in both diseases. If there is a loss in taste and smell, however, it’s more likely to be Covid,” Blumberg said.

She said it was “critical” for clinicians to get a travel history and residential address to establish if the patient had been in a malaria-endemic region — and then test for malaria.

This comes a month after the NICD warned that the current focus on Covid-19 has led to malaria being missed.

In December, the institute said that early symptoms of malaria and Covid-19 are similarly non-specific. These symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue, and muscle and joint pains. More severe signs and symptoms also shared between these infections include respiratory difficulties, including ARDS.  


“Unrecognised and untreated malaria can rapidly progress to severe illness with high mortality. It is mandatory to check for malaria in all persons presenting with fever and ’flu-like illness, if they are resident in, or have travelled within the last six weeks from, a malaria-risk area, regardless of suspected Covid-19 condition, pending Covid-19 tests or even a positive test,” the NICD alert said

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Chris Bateman
Chris Bateman is a freelance journalist

Related stories

WELCOME TO YOUR M&G

If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here

Advertising

Subscribers only

Fears of violence persist a year after the murder of...

The court battle to stop coal mining in rural KwaZulu-Natal has heightened the sense of danger among environmental activists

Data shows EFF has lower negative sentiment online among voters...

The EFF has a stronger online presence than the ANC and Democratic Alliance

More top stories

South Africa must approach its energy transition pragmatically

A sensible climate policy must balance the imperative of decarbonisation, socioeconomic policy and security of supply considerations

Steel strike: Workers struck while the iron was hot

After almost three weeks, labour and employers have reached a deal — setting the steel industry back on its path to recovery

Why handing over ICC suspects could help Sudan’s transition

A failed coup in September, weeks of brinkmanship, and a looming crisis in eastern Sudan have laid bare tensions between civilians and military leaders

Phoenix activist takes on Durban’s politically connected in November polls

Independent candidates look set to play a greater role in the metro municipality after 1 November
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…
×