Britons catching malaria at highest level in over 20 years

A mosquito biting someone - Britons catching malaria at highest number in over 20 years
Malaria is caught when a female mosquito carrying the disease bites you - Joao Paulo Burini

Malaria has surged among holidaying Britons with cases at their highest level in more than 20 years.

Official data show there were 2,004 people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland who caught malaria while abroad in 2023, up nearly 50 per cent from 2022.

Public health experts have attributed the increase to a resurgence of malaria in many countries as well as renewed interest in long-haul travel last year following the pandemic.

Malaria is a parasitic disease carried by female mosquitoes and is a common illness in Africa, South America and much of Asia.

Symptoms often include flu-like signs such as fever, headache, fatigue, and aches while it can also manifest as a cough and diarrhoea.

‘All cases of malaria are preventable’

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.”

Data show that 2023 saw more people in the UK catch the disease while travelling than in any year on record, except for 2000 and 2001, when 2,047 and 2,044 cases were reported, respectively.

Last year’s case number, however, does not include Scotland data yet and the actual UK-wide figure could yet eclipse any malaria tally in the 21st century.

Dr Dipti Patel, Director 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 four to six 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.”

Mosquito-borne outbreaks to spread to northern Europe

It comes as a study found that more than half of the world’s population could be at risk of catching diseases transmitted by mosquitoes, such as malaria and dengue, by the end of the century.

Experts said mosquito-borne outbreaks, driven by global warming, are set to spread to parts of northern Europe and other regions of the world over the next few decades.

Analysis from the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies, presented at the ESCMID Global Congress in Barcelona, shows 4.7 billion could be affected by dengue and malaria by 2100.

“With climate change seeming so difficult to address, we can expect to see more cases and possibly deaths from diseases such as dengue and malaria across mainland Europe,” said study author Rachel Lowe.

“We must anticipate outbreaks and move to intervene early to prevent diseases from happening in the first place.”

Hope for a vaccine

There is currently no licensed vaccine for malaria, which is caught through mosquito bites.

The Oxford Vaccine Group, however, is developing its R21/Matrix-M malaria vaccine, co-developed with the Serum Institute of India, which has 78 per cent efficacy.

Oxford scientists have partnered with the Serum Institute, the biggest vaccine manufacturer in the world, to build on the Covid-era collaboration which allowed for the low cost mass manufacture and distribution of the AstraZeneca coronavirus jab.

It is hoped the partnership will produce up to 200 million of the $4 doses annually, with the plan to deliver these across Africa.

Professor Sir Adrian Hill, lead researcher on the vaccine at the University of Oxford, said: “The R21/Matrix-M vaccine represents a paradigm shift in malaria prevention, offering unprecedented safety, efficacy and cost-effectiveness”.

Gareth Jenkins, executive director of advocacy and strategy at Malaria No More UK, said: “Today’s new data reinforces how the rise in malaria cases in the most affected countries has to be tackled.

“Malaria is a disease which still kills a child every minute, with most of these deaths being among African children.

“UK scientists and the UK government have led from the front with ground-breaking new innovations to fight the disease - now we must ensure they reach those that need them and that we keep developing more tools for the future so that this insidious disease can be consigned to the history books.”