The story is all too familiar to those of us who oversee employee health around the globe: A 43-year-old engineer from Indiana travels to Nigeria for meetings. Because he is only in Africa for a short time, he never considers contracting an exotic disease. His employer doesn't mention it, either.
A week after returning home, he tells his wife that he doesn't feel well and takes a day off work. He goes to see his family doctor, complaining of fever, severe headaches and blood in his urine. As a bit of an afterthought, he tells his doctor that he was recently in Nigeria. Without that key piece of information, he may not have been properly diagnosed. But in the end, he is hospitalized with malaria.
In this example, the man soon recovered. But as we recognize World Malaria Day on April 25, it's important to remember that malaria -- a parasite spread by mosquitos -- infects 219 million people each year. According to the World Health Organization, it kills 660,000 of them.
Think about that for a moment: That's more than the number of Americans known to have died in either the Civil War or World War II. And it happens each year.
There's a reason we recognize World Malaria Day annually, and it is this: While there is no vaccine, malaria is both preventable and curable. But travelers, expatriates, businesses, NGOs and universities must know the risks beforehand.
To spread awareness -- to lower those shocking figures above -- we must pay special attention to Africa. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 90 percent of global malaria deaths each year occur there.
At the same time, our own data shows that business travel to malaria-endemic countries in Africa has risen 61 percent in just the last three years. And with this, malaria has become the number one cause for hospitalizations and evacuations among travelers and expatriates in the region. So it's become increasingly important today for companies to define their training procedures and policies toward malaria if they have employees operating in medium- to high-risk areas of the continent.
For example, many employers are unprepared to exercise appropriate Duty of Care when it comes to preparing employees who are headed to affected countries. They're often unaware that even a short trip without appropriate measures can be fatal. And even when they know there is some risk, they often think it's enough to simply send employees to a travel doctor for anti-malarial tablets and advice. But it's not.
The fact is when employees don't take their medication as prescribed -- or take steps to minimize mosquito bites -- they can end up with a vicious case of malaria.
It can't be understated that prevention is crucial -- and companies simply must be aggressive when it comes to playing a role in stopping the spread of the disease. Therefore, employers should keep these points in mind:
- Take appropriate, evidence-based approaches to preventive medication for their employees (known as "chemoprophylaxis");
- Provide access to clinical services and medical assistance for malaria case management;
- Provide education and training around personal protection as well as habits to reduce mosquito bites;
- Give access to quality-assured medication before and during travel: In Sub-Saharan Africa, as many as one-third of all anti-malarial tablets are counterfeit.
Finally, it's also important to remember that malaria has an incubation period of seven to 30 days. That means individuals must remain vigilant even after returning home and advise their family doctor.
World Malaria Day can't end the scourge of this disease. But with enough outreach and education, we can certainly lessen its global impact. Companies with mobile employees, business travelers, and tourists all have a role to play. And getting accurate information out about prevention is the first step.
Let's do our part and spread the word to stop malaria.
Robert L. Quigley, MD, D.Phil., is the Regional Medical Director, Americas Region, for International SOS, an international healthcare, medical assistance, and security services company.