Mosquito Borne illnesses: Malaria and other common deadly viruses in SEA

Written by John W.

For many Southeast Asian residents, mosquitos are the bane of existence. While these small insects can be a daily annoyance and are often thought of as harmless pests, it’s easy to forget they can also be deadly. It’s true, most people who are bitten suffer little more than a mild itch that lasts a few days. But some of these small predators lurking in the early morning hours and at dusk are far from harmless. In Southeast Asia, there are 3 types of mosquito borne illnesses that can lead to serious illness. While they are all potentially deadly, you may wonder, which is the riskiest? To find out, we consulted medical expert Dr. Lalande. Here are some of his thoughts on the subject.

Malaria is responsible for over a half million deaths worldwide

Each year, an estimated 660,000 people die from malaria. Its symptoms, which usually start within a few weeks of being bitten by an infected mosquito, are characterized by chills, high fever, headache, sweating, vomiting and diarrhea.

  • Where it’s commonly contracted: The chances of malaria infection in urban environments, even in Southeast Asia, is slim to none. The disease does not exist in Singapore. Most people who contract this disease do so in rural areas.

  • Does a vaccine exist? While scientist across the globe are trying to develop a vaccine, currently there are no malaria vaccines in existence. Travelers who are temporarily visiting rural areas in Southeast Asia are typically prescribed preventative medication to avoid infection.

  • What is your risk? The most deadly forms of malaria exist in tropical parts of Africa. According to the Center for Disease control, 90% of estimated deaths occur in Africa, primarily in children 5 years or younger. For those who live in Southeast Asian urban areas, there is little to worry about as it is rarely found in cities. However, if you live in a rural space, you’re at a greater risk and are recommended to use bed or mosquito nets to prevent bites while sleeping.

Japanese Encephalitis is fatal in 25% of people who contract it

While easier to avoid than the other two mosquito borne illnesses on this list, Japanese Encephalitis is arguably the most deadly, killing roughly one in four people who contract the virus. Symptoms of the disease are characterized by headache, confusion, fever, vomiting, and difficulty moving. As the infection progresses, it can lead to swelling of the brain and coma, which eventually can cause permanent brain damage or death.

  • Where it’s commonly contracted: Japanese Encephalitis occurs mostly in rural areas along river banks, specifically near pig farms. The virus is non-existent in Singapore.

  • Does a vaccine exist? Several reliable Japanese Encephalitis vaccines exist and can be found in many Southeast Asian city clinics. Singapore children are vaccinated for the disease, as are many children in other Southeast Asian countries.

  • What is your risk? If you are vaccinated for Japanese Encephalitis, it is highly unlikely you’ll contract the disease, even if you are regularly bitten by mosquitos. With that said, it is still recommended to avoid mosquito bites as much as possible.

Roughly half the world’s population are at risk for dengue

Often referred to as break bone fever, dengue is known for its debilitating joint pain. The disease is endemic in tropical countries across the globe, and one study concerning The global distribution and burden of dengue estimates around 3.9 billion people are at risk of contracting the disease. 

  • Where it’s commonly contracted: Big cities, rural areas and virtually any place in Southeast Asia. Dengue is everywhere, including Singapore. Worst of all, the deadly mosquito that carries it could be hiding within your home, in houseplants or your air conditioning unit.

  • Does a vaccine exist? While it may be surprising to hear, a dengue vaccine does exist. But it’s highly controversial. The pharmaceutical company that developed the only approved vaccine, admitted last year that their vaccine could actually worsen dengue symptoms— rather than prevent them.

  • What is your risk? Dengue poses the most risk to both Southeast Asian natives and expats. Like malaria, children (especially those between ages 2 - 4) are most likely to suffer fatalities from the disease. The symptoms people experience can vary tremendously in scope. 90% of people who contract the disease will show no symptoms, while 10% will suffer flu-like symptoms such as headaches, vomiting, nausea, joint pain, and swollen glands. Only 1% of people, those who have an allergic reaction to the infection, are at risk of death. These people may suffer abrupt and sudden bleeding anywhere in the body and should be treated in a hospital’s ICU immediately. 

Besides Japanese Encephalitis, which can typically be prevented with a vaccine, the best way to avoid the above illnesses is to avoid mosquitos. While this is undoubtedly difficult, bug spray, a mosquito net, and a quick chat with your doctor can be a lifesaver. We recommend consulting with your doctor to learn if mosquito borne illnesses are prevalent where you live or in the area you’re traveling to. Once you know, you can adjust your lifestyle or plan your trip accordingly. Whether or not you contract any of the mosquito borne illnesses above, LUMA can provide you comprehensive insurance that can be a lifesaver. To learn more about our premium plans, email us today at consult@lumahealth.com.