Malaria travel warning: UK cases at their highest for more than 20 years

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The number of malaria cases in the UK has broken 2,000 for the first time since 2001 - as the disease sees a worrying resurgence around the world.

There were 2,004 cases of malaria in the UK in 2023, all of which were all acquired abroad. In 2022, 1,369 cases were registered in the UK.

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The World Health Organisation says that globally there were 249m cases of malaria in 2022, which was 16m more than the number of cases in 2019. It’s thought that the resumption of widespread travel after the pandemic may have caused an acceleration in numbers.

Malaria is caused by a parasite that can be passed to humans by mosquitoes. Symptoms can be flu-like and include fever, headache, fatigue, abdominal discomfort and muscle aches, as well as cough and diarrhoea. Although symptoms of malaria from several species of the Plasmodium parasite can cause severe disease, illness with Plasmodium falciparum can progress rapidly and cause life-threatening complications if prompt treatment is not given.

Professor Peter Chiodini, director of the UKHSA Malaria Reference Laboratory (MRL), said:  “All malaria cases are preventable and simple steps like using insect repellent, covering exposed skin, sleeping under treated bed nets and taking malaria prevention tablets can lower infection risks. While malaria can affect anyone, the majority of Plasmodium falciparum malaria cases in the UK occur in those of African background. Even if you have visited or lived in a country before, you will not have the same protection against infections as local people and are still at risk. We are working in partnership with communities at greater risk to improve their access to and use of effective malaria prevention measures.”

Dr Dipti Patel, diector of the National Travel Health Network and Centre, said:  “If you are making plans to travel abroad this year, please take a moment to prioritise your health and plan ahead. Check the relevant country information pages on our website, TravelHealthPro, and ideally speak to your GP or a travel health clinic 4 to 6 weeks ahead of travelling to ensure you have had all the necessary vaccinations and advice you need to ensure your trip is a happy and healthy one.”

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The Travel Health Pro website, supported by the UK Health Security Agency, has information on health risks in countries across the world and is a one-stop-shop for information to help people plan their trip abroad. Travellers should be aware that even if they have visited or lived in a malarious country before, they will not have the same protection against malaria as local residents and are still at risk. Travellers should consult their general practice, pharmacist, or travel clinic four to six weeks before their trip for individual advice and malaria prevention tablets where required.  

Government advice is that in countries with insects that spread diseases like malaria, dengue and zika, travellers can protect themselves by using insect repellent, covering exposed skin, and sleeping under a treated bed net. 

For travellers feeling unwell during their trip, it is important to seek medical help while abroad. When returning to the UK, if feeling unwell, individuals should promptly seek medical attention and ensure they inform their healthcare provider that they have been traveling recently.

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