What if malaria mosquitoes travel to Belgium? Five questions and answers about “airport malaria”

1. What is malaria? And how can you get it?

There are more than 3,000 species of mosquitoes worldwide. Only some of them can transmit malaria. These are mosquitoes belonging to the genus Anopheles.

You can only get malaria if you are stung by one Anophelesmosquitoes that also carry a specific parasite. This parasite then multiplies in your body, first in your liver and then in your red blood cells. It causes high fever, muscle pain, headache and chills. Patients sometimes experience it as a “flu feeling”, although the fever can run very high.

Untreated malaria can be fatal. More than 600,000 people died of malaria in 2020, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Not all mosquitoes can transmit malaria.


nastenkapeka

2. Can you get malaria if you don’t return from a tropical destination?

It is possible, although the chance is very small. Mosquitoes sometimes travel on a plane coming from a tropical destination. It can then happen that they stab someone near the airport.

Most of these mosquitoes do not carry the parasite that causes malaria and are therefore harmless. Only in rare cases is a mosquito a carrier. If such a one AnophelesIf you bite a mosquito, you can become infected and therefore get malaria. In that case, we talk about airport malariabecause the pollution usually happens near an airport.

Some exotic mosquitoes lay their eggs in car tires

Prof. Leen Delang, KU Leuven

Noteworthy detail: some exotic mosquitoes, for example the tiger mosquito, also appear in cover plants. “This is because there is a lot of international transport of tyres,” says Professor Leen Delang (KU Leuven). “Sometimes a thin layer of water remains in those tires. Mosquitoes can lay their eggs in them. And those eggs can then turn into adult mosquitoes.”

“However, you will not find malaria mosquitoes in shelter centers,” says biologist Isra Deblauwe from the Institute of Tropical Medicine. “Their eggs can’t survive long enough.”

In rare cases, malaria mosquitoes survive in a suitcase.


male root

3. How uncommon is airport malaria?

Airport malaria is very unusual, but there have been several cases in Belgium in recent years. For example, an airport employee was infected last year. A couple from Kampenhout even died of malaria two years ago. They were probably stung by a lone, wandering mosquito.

“We have investigated that case thoroughly,” says Isra Deblauwe. “The mosquito probably came from Gabon or Cameroon, although we can’t say for sure.”

Airport malaria is not new, but it seems to have become more common in recent years. This is primarily due to the strong increase in international air traffic. As a result, there are more flights flying back and forth between tropical destinations and countries without malaria, such as Belgium. This increases the chance of some mosquitoes occasionally traveling along.

Global warming also plays a role. “As a result, there are more heat waves,” says Isra Deblauwe. “Tropical malaria mosquitoes traveling by plane to Belgium can survive longer. This means they can also fly further and there is a greater chance of them biting and infecting someone.”

Airport malaria is very rare, although the number of cases has increased in recent years.

4. What if malaria mosquitoes multiply here?

exotic Anopheles-mosquitoes that can transmit malaria do not occur here. So they have to survive the long flight to Belgium first. Upon arrival, they are immediately confronted with the next challenge: the temperate Belgian climate. Malaria mosquitoes thrive best in warm temperatures and high humidity.

“You also don’t find their typical breeding grounds very much in Belgium,” says Isra Deblauwe. “Therefore, the chance of exotic malaria mosquitoes settling in Belgium is currently non-existent.”

Larvae of the Anopheles albimanus mosquito, which often transmits malaria

5. Can we prevent malaria mosquitoes from gaining a foothold here?

“We advise general practitioners near the airport to be on guard,” says Joris Moonens, spokesman for the Danish Agency for Care and Health. “They need to consider malaria as a possible diagnosis. That’s important when they see people with symptoms like muscle pain and fever without an obvious cause.”

In Belgium, there is also the MEMO+ project for monitoring exotic mosquitoes. “We set mosquito traps in parking lots, where we mainly look for tiger mosquitoes,” says Isra Deblauwe. “Sciensano also has a website where citizens can post pictures of tiger mosquitoes. Tiger mosquitoes therefore cannot transmit malaria parasites, but some viruses can.”

They are also aware of the problem in aviation. Aero-Sense, a company from Roeselare, develops chemical products for use in aircraft. “The cargo area is thus treated before take-off,” says Robbe Vangheluwe from Aero-Sense. “The cabin crew also walk down the aisle with a spray can. That way you can prevent mosquitoes from traveling with you.”

Such processing is mandatory in many countries. “At Zaventem airport, they only release a plane if it has been processed correctly,” says Vangheluwe. “The airline must even hand over the empty aerosol can upon landing so that everything can be checked.”

With all the measures and thorough monitoring, the danger is very small at the moment… even if you live near the airport.

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