Pretty Parasites with Dr. Pritt, Part 5: Bad-News Bugs

Parasites can be pretty: pretty cute, pretty awesome, and sometimes pretty creepy. This article is part one of a five-part series featuring some of Dr. Bobbi Pritt's "freaky favorites," ranked from 1 (not too scary) to 5 (bad-news bugs).

Freaky factor 5/5: A no good, terrible, rotten, very bad disease.

The head of an Anopheles gambiae mosquito, under a magnification of 114X. (Courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

There’s no getting around it: Malaria is a super freaky and dangerous disease. It’s an illness caused by one of the deadliest parasites in the world, and nearly half of the people on planet Earth are at risk of getting it.

See those pretty purple specks in the picture above? Those are itsy-bitsy malaria parasites. They live inside red blood cells (the larger purple shapes). Malaria is most common in tropical places, although once upon a time, it was common in the U.S. as well.

The way malaria passes from mosquitoes to people, and from people back to mosquitoes, is complicated and kind of nifty. An uninfected mosquito gets infected by biting a person who has malaria.

Malaria causes shaking, chills, high fever, and sweating. In 2016, scientists estimated that 216 million people had malaria, and 445,000 people died from it. When traveling to a place where malaria is common, make sure to take preventive medicine before, during, and after the trip. And sleep under a bed net to keep mosquitoes away at night. Malaria is deadly if not treated, but it can be treated with a number of different medicines.

Bobbi Pritt, M.D., is a pathologist and microbiologist at Mayo Clinic. She loves learning about parasites. You can read her blog, Creepy Dreadful Wonderful Parasites and follow @ParasiteGal.

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