How does Malaria become so dangerous?
Malaria in humans can be caused by a number of different parasites – the most dangerous, and the one which is responsible for over 90% of the worldwide deaths from malaria, is Plasmodium falciparum.
The reason that P. falciparum is so dangerous is because it affects the behaviour of red blood cells. Red blood cells that are infected with P. falciparum become “sticky”, and as they pass through the the small blood vessels inside the body’s organs, they become stuck – this process is known as “sequestration”. As the number of red blood cells stuck inside the small blood vessels increases, blood flow to the organ is reduced, which can result in further complications. When sequestration occurs inside the blood vessels in the brain, the result is what is clinically recognised as cerebral malaria – complications can include impaired consciousness, coma and even death.
If diagnosed and treated promptly, most cases of P. falciparum can be resolved quickly and without complications, using oral medication. However, the parasite can reproduce very quickly, meaning that cases can become more serious within days and even hours. As such, if P. falciparum infection is suspected, and particularly in high-risk individuals such as young children, pregnant women and immunocompromised individuals, diagnosis should be sought immediately so that appropriate treatment can be delivered.