The National Institute for Communicable Diseases has warned that, as South Africa enters its peak malaria season, cases of malaria are being misdiagnosed as COVID. Both malaria and COVID have similar non-specific early symptoms such as fever, chills, headaches, fatigue and muscle pain. Undiagnosed and untreated malaria rapidly progresses to severe illness and can be fatal.
Speaking at a media briefing on Wednesday, principal NICD medical scientist Dr Jaishree Raman said that Gauteng has seen a slight increase of malaria cases recently.
Dr Raman noted that COVID “has pulled resources from the malaria programmes, reducing active surveillance and case investigation, which is reducing the ability [to] classify cases accurately.”
However, the NICD does not know the exact source of the malaria. “Data cleaning and case classification is ongoing, so at the moment, we cannot say whether the uptick in cases is due to locally-acquired or imported malaria,” she said.
The NICD advises that any individual that prevents with fever or ‘flu-like illness, if they reside in a malaria-risk area in Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga or have travelled to a malaria-risk area, especially Mozambique, in the past six weeks, must be tested for malaria by blood smear microscopy or malaria rapid diagnostic test. If they test positive for malaria, the patient must be started on malaria treatment, immediately.
The NICD also advises patients to remember to inform their healthcare provider of their recent travel, especially to neighbouring countries and malaria risk areas in South Africa.
‘Taxi malaria’, transmitted by hitch-hiking mosquitoes, should be considered in a patient with unexplained fever who has not travelled to a malaria-endemic area, but is getting progressively sicker, with a low platelet count.