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Seven misconceptions about malaria prevention

September 14, 2009 - 12:06 -- Bart G.J. Knols

Anyone serious about African safaris is serious about malaria. The sheer number of deaths caused by this parasitic disease simply puts the mosquito as the number 1 most dangerous animal in the world. Ten children will have died of malaria in the time it takes you to read this blog. I have never sat around a camp fire whilst on safari without malaria being discussed one way or the other. Some fantastic stories persist, and here are some really good ones:


1) Gin and tonic will stop me from getting malaria. As a matter of fact, it once did. The British consumed tonic water to prevent malaria during colonial days, and due to the bitterness of its quinine content they added gin (surprise, here comes the alcohol). These days tonic water hardly contains quinine, and you’d have to drink some 150 litres per day – even if you’d manage this, I suggest you do not mix it with gin.


2) I keep mosquitoes at bay with ultrasonic devices. This nonsense persists simply because from time to time industry tries to fool us into buying such gadgets. They supposedly produce high-frequency male mosquito sounds that would keep the female away from you. Not so. In fact, selling such gadgets ought to be viewed as unethical.


3) I eat lots of garlic and drink my beer. Numerous stories about food sources that reduce your attractiveness to mosquitoes persist. Fact is that there is hardly any evidence that garlic and Vitamin B affects the number of bites you’ll receive. Although it is indeed likely that consumption of garlic alters your body odour profile and thus the smells female mosquitoes use to track you down at night, the causal link between eating garlic and attractiveness to mosquitoes remains very weak. And for the Brits, no, Marmite won’t help you either.


4) I’ll only be there for a few days. The length of your stay doesn’t matter – all it takes is one bite, one single bite from an infected mosquito. Between 1987-2006, in the UK alone, some 39,300 travellers returned home with malaria. So better be safe than sorry and take preventive measures .


5) I stay in luxurious hygienic places. Hungry female mosquitoes ignore the price you’ve paid for your accommodation. Although luxurious places often do better in terms of keeping mosquitoes out (screening, bednets), once you sit on your veranda at night you’ll be on the mosquito menu.


6)  There is no malaria-risk in urban centres. Even this doesn’t hold. Many large urban centres that you will spend a night or two in before and after your safari have malaria. Though most cities were free of malaria during colonial days because of laws banning intra-urban agricultural practices, such activities have returned and are providing superb breeding sites for mosquitoes.


7) My partner always gets bitten so I don’t need to worry. It is indeed true that, given a choice, female malaria mosquitoes will preferentially select one of you. If you’re the lucky one, don’t count yourself rich – if your partner is not around you will still be bitten and run the risk of contracting disease.

All good stories, but none of these hold any truth in them. There is only one truth: Stick to the advice given to you by your healthcare professional. Always, without fail.





Jim Jackson's picture
Submitted by Jim Jackson on

This should be pubished in every newspaper around the world. It's so obvious for us in the malaria field, but not so for the average tourist.
Thank you for this.


William Jobin's picture
Submitted by William Jobin on

delete duplicae

William Jobin Director of Blue Nile Associates

William Jobin's picture
Submitted by William Jobin on

Dear Bart,
Interesting and very safe approach, but in practical terms, you can outwit the mosquito. I have worked in Africa for about 50 years, including the hottest malaria zones like northern Nigeria, and central Sudan. Now my kids are travelling in malarious areas, So here is what I do:

Where you sleep is important. In a room with screens, fans and or air conditioning. The female needs stable air to find you.

Stay in at night. The anophelines bite from about midnite to dawn.

Don't be paranoid. One bite is usually not enough, repeated bites are what transmit, since many anophelines will be free of the parasite.

Don't do drugs, they are dangerous and unreliable. Sleep in a safe room.

Make the bathroom into a light-trap. Leave the light on, with the bathroom door opened slightly. The light will draw the mosquitoes away from you.

With AIDS, who you sleep with is important. With malaria, where you sleep is important.

Caveat. I am an engineer, I always tell people not to follow my advice, I am not a physician. However, I have not used drugs in 20-30 years, but have always slept in screened room, or in tent with netting.

Long ago, my colleague David Bradley said he would remind my relatives of my advice, at my funeral, when I die of malaria. But i am still kicking.

How do you avoid getting killed in a car accident? The only safe way is not to drive. But that is an extreme measure, not proportionate to the risk. Use your brain.


William Jobin Director of Blue Nile Associates

Submitted by Aase Berg on

Travelling and working for many years in several parts of Africa, I have heard those viewpoints several times, in the bars, by the camp fire, at the embassies, etc. I have also observed that some of those poeple later have had malaria, and I have personally witnessed several deaths due to malaria indirectly caused of those misbelieves. The question is if you chose to believe or disbelieve in all evidence available, achieved during scinetific research during years. If you choose to use your engineer logic part of your brain, convincing, serious research tells us:

Sleeping under impregnated bednets protects againts the anopheles bites during the night.

The mosquitos have changed biting habits, their feeding time starts at dusk and ends at dawn, it is not correct as said at midnight.

Drug prophylaxis has it sides effects yes, but the side effect of not taking it may be ending up at the grave yard. They do not give 100% protection, but they give us medical doctors time to give you effective treatment before the parasite kills you.

Stop spreading those lies, young unexperienced people may listen to you and end up seriuosly ill, life long handicapped with brain damage after cerebral malaria or die.

Yes, agree, use your brain and listen to the evidence we have.

Aase Berg

Submitted by Guest (not verified) on

I had a good laugh and learned valuable information while reading this. Thanks.