SALINE COUNTY, Ark. – Mosquitoes in Saline County may be carrying malaria. The Arkansas Department of Health started the process of capturing mosquitoes and testing them for the malaria parasite after officials warned of a locally acquired case Wednesday.
The infected person in Saline County had not traveled outside the country, the ADH reported.
It is a trend starting to pop up in multiple states. Cases from Florida, Texas, Maryland and most recently Arkansas are the first locally contracted malaria cases America has seen in 20 years. All other instances of malaria between then and now had come from overseas travel.
The Natural State had a reported five cases of malaria acquired outside of the U.S. so far in 2023.
Dr. Naveen Patil has been aware of malaria since he was a child using a mosquito net around his bed in India and now is the Medical Director of Infectious Diseases in Arkansas.
“There are almost 250 to 300 million cases of malaria all over the world, and almost a million people die, and most of them are children,” he explained.
Patil said his team found no links from the Saline County case to any international travel. He said malaria is not contagious from person to person unless a mosquito carries infected blood and thinks this recent case is historic.
“Maybe 30 to 40 years from since we’ve been tracking, we have not had a local case of malaria in our state,” Patil said.
A renewed risk for malaria in Arkansas carries a lot of history. Over a hundred years ago, Walnut Ridge physician Doctor Zaphney Orto first helped prove the disease was linked to mosquitoes. Previously it was thought to be linked to bad air, hence the name.
On Feb. 2, 1914, the first death recorded by the newly formed Arkansas Bureau of Vital Statistics was a malaria death. Arkansas had one of the highest malaria rates in the nation in the 1920s and 1930s, with most in the counties near the Mississippi River.
The “100 Years of Service” report ADH published in 2013 highlights a 1915 malaria outbreak in Crossett. It states that 60% of illnesses local doctors treated had become cases of malaria.
Through a partnership with the Rockefeller Commission and the U.S. Public Health Service, the Arkansas Board of Health set out to rid Crossett of malaria by eliminating mosquito breeding sites.
Between 1915 and 1917, reported cases of malaria dropped by 92%. The Crossett Experiment became a model for malaria prevention and control across the world.
Prevention is what doctors are stressing now, using insect repellant, avoiding mosquito-ridden areas, and wearing sleeves and pants when possible.
Malaria can be deadly if untreated, so here are the early symptoms to look out for: fever, chills, sweating, body aches, and nausea. Be mindful that those are common in other illnesses if you seek a hospital for treatment, the doctor said.
“We are now much more prepared,” Patil said. “We have the diagnostic abilities, we have the medications and all those things to treat patients, so I think we are now in a better place now than we ever were before.”
Mosquitoes can reproduce in as little a puddle as a bottle cap. The Centers for Disease Control says climate change and warmer weather are making it easier for many animals and infectious diseases to spread.