Malaria Drugs

Malaria is a serious, often deadly disease transmitted by mosquitoes. It affects about 300 million people and causing 1 million deaths a year. More than 90 percent of cases occur in tropical Africa, with young children and pregnant women being the most impacted. In Africa, malaria is the leading cause of death for children under age five [Source: Roll Back Malaria Partnership].

If you conract malaria while traveling in a tropical country, you have to get to a medical facility immediately. Malaria is curable with accurate diagnosis and timely treatment. Learn about the latest approaches and preventive actions you can take before you leave home.

Depending on which country you are visiting, you will be exposed to different types of Plasmodium parasites transmitted by the female Anopheles mosquito:

  • P.falciparium - the most deadly of the four types and the leading cause of malarial deaths in Africa
  • P. vivax - the dominant malaria species outside Africa and is prevalent in areas in the Middle East, Asia, Oceania, and Central and South America
  • P. malariae and P. ovale - generally less common but found worldwide, especially in the tropical areas of Africa

Timely diagnosis and treatment can prevent worsening of symptoms and the spread of the disease to other people. Each of the four types of malaria parasites has distinguishing characteristics that can be identified by examining a drop of blood under a microscope. As some types impact both the blood and the liver and some have become resistant in some areas of the world to the most widely used antimalarial drug, accurate identification of the organism is essential to prescribing an effective treatment.

Blood Image Gallery

Photo courtesy Dr. Mae Melvin/CDC
A photomicrograph of a blood smear showing red blood cells that contain developing P. vivax parasites
(magnified 1000 times). See more blood pictures.

Malaria is curable if the right drugs are used for the correct period of time. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that treatment be initiated immediately and take into consideration:

  • The type of infecting Plasmodium species - Different species have varying courses of infection and drug resistance patterns in differing geographic regions. To learn more about the different species, check out How Malaria Works.
  • The severity of symptoms - Patients with uncomplicated malaria can be effectively treated with oral antimalarial drugs, while those with severe, or complicated malaria symptoms typically require hospitalization and administration of drugs by healthcare personnel.
  • The geographical area where the infection was acquired - The location informs the doctor of the likelihood of drug resistance of the infecting parasite and allows for the selection of an appropriate treatment.

Next, we'll look at the different malaria drug combinations prescribed by doctors.

The Tree Bark Cure

­The first effective treatment for malaria was the bark of the cinchona tree, which grows on the slopes of the Andes. The tree bark was used in Peru to control malaria and was introduced into Europe by the Jesuits in the 1600s.

French chemists extracted the active ingredient, quinine, from the bark in 1820, and the drug was a common treatment for malaria until replaced by chloroquine.

Quinine is now back in favor for treating severe P. falciparum, which has developed resistance to chloroquine and for treating pregnant women in the second and third trimesters.