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Malaria

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Cause

Malaria is caused by a single-celled parasite from the genus Plasmodium. More than 100 different species of Plasmodium exist. They produce malaria in many types of animals and birds, as well as in humans.

Four species of Plasmodium commonly infect humans. Each one has a distinctive appearance under the microscope, and each one produces a somewhat different pattern of symptoms. Two or more species can live in the same area and infect a single person at the same time.

  • Plasmodium falciparum is responsible for most malaria deaths, especially in Africa. The infection can develop suddenly and produce several life-threatening complications. With prompt, effective treatment, however, it is almost always curable.
  • Plasmodium vivax, the most geographically widespread of the species, produces less severe symptoms. Relapses, however, can occur for up to 3 years, and chronic disease is debilitating. Once common in temperate climates, P. vivax is now found mostly in the tropics, especially throughout Asia.
  • Plasmodium malariae infections not only produce typical malaria symptoms but also can persist in the blood for very long periods, possibly decades, without ever producing symptoms. A person with asymptomatic (no symptoms) P. malariae, however, can infect others, either through blood donation or mosquito bites. P. malariae has been wiped out from temperate climates, but it persists in Africa.
  • Plasmodium ovale is rare, can cause relapses, and generally occurs in West Africa.

Last Updated February 14, 2011