What does malaria feel like?

We’re all aware that malaria is bad. We’ve quoted the statistics: 1 child dies every 60 seconds, there are more than 200 million cases of malaria each year, and nearly a million die.

We’ve also talked about the symptoms of malaria: fever, headache, chills, nausea and vomiting. But those symptoms don’t adequately describe what it feels like to have malaria. They’re the same symptoms as the common flu, after all.

Cover of The Shadow of the Sun
The Shadow of the Sun, by Ryszard Kapuściński

That’s why my jaw dropped when I read Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński’s description of malaria in his memoir from Africa, The Shadow of the Sun:

The first signal of an imminent malaria attack is a feeling of anxiety, which comes on suddenly and for no clear reason. Something has happened to you, something bad… Everything is irritating. First and foremost, the light; you hate the light. And others are irritating—their loud voices, their revolting smell, their rough touch.

But you don’t have a lot of time for these repugnances and loathings. For the attack arrives quickly, sometimes quite abruptly, with few preliminaries. It is a sudden, violent onset of cold. A polar, arctic cold. Someone has taken you, naked, toasted in the hellish heat of the Sahel and the Sahara, and thrown you straight into the icy highlands of Greenland or Spitsbergen, amid the snows, winds, and blizzards. What a shock! You feel the cold in a split second, a terrifying, piercing, ghastly cold. You begin to tremble, to quake to thrash about. You immediately recognize, however, that this is not a trembling you are familiar with from earlier experiences—say, when you caught cold one winter in a frost; these tremors and convulsions tossing you around are of a kind that at any moment now will tear you to shreds. Trying to save yourself, you being to beg for help.

What can bring relief? The only thing that really helps is if someone covers you. But not simply throws a blanket or quilt over you. This thing you are being covered with must crush you with its weight, squeeze you, flatten you. You dream of being pulverized. You desperately long for a steamroller to pass over you.

He goes on to describe his own experiences with malaria, villagers placing “the lid of some kind of wooden chest” on him, and then sitting on that lid to provide some degree of relief. But he also describes seeing people around him come down with the disease.

A man right after a strong attack of malaria is a human rag. He lies in a puddle of sweat, he is still feverish, and he can move neither hand nor foot. Everything hurts; he is dizzy and nauseous. He is exhausted, weak, limp. Carried by someone else, he give the impression of having no bones or muscles. And many days must pass before he can get up on his feet again.

This vivid description paints a picture of something much worse than the flu. “Fever, headache, chills, nausea and vomiting” are accurate symptoms, but they do not express the violence and turmoil of the infection.

But there is one big hope after reading this: malaria is completely preventable and curable. We can act — we are acting — to put a stop to this human rag-creating disease.

Will you help?

The Lutheran Malaria Initiative

Donate to the Lutheran Malaria Initiative

For every…

$1 you can help a child with malaria receive medicine. By receiving medicine once symptoms arise, malaria is treatable.

$10 you can help provide one family with an insecticide-treated bed net and the proper education on its use. A bed net can reduce malaria transmission by as much as 90 percent.

$50 you can underwrite the cost of malaria prevention messages to raise awareness on a local radio station. Many people know little about malaria, including how it’s contracted and its symptoms.

$100 you can help train healthcare workers to diagnose and treat malaria. Training medical workers is crucial to successful malaria education and treatment.

$1,000 or more you can help provide microscopes and other medical equipment to rural health clinics. Laboratory equipment helps to specially diagnose malaria.