By Daphne Clarance: There has been a spike in viral flu infections since the beginning of the year and it has been challenging to distinguish fever and body aches experienced by individuals caused by Covid-19, H3N2 or malaria.
With the continuous emergence of fatal infections affecting numerous lives, discerning between Covid-19, H3N2 influenza, and malaria can be challenging due to their overlapping symptoms.
Once the monsoon hits, there will be a rise in the mosquito-born disease malaria. With malaria accounting for approximately 88 per cent of all malaria cases in the South-East Asia region in 2019, according to a World Health Organisation (WHO) report, it has been an area of concern for the public health authorities in the country.
"Despite the different modes of transmission, the primary symptoms of these illnesses are similar, starting with fever and body aches. However, closely monitoring the varying symptoms having slight differences can be beneficial in distinguishing Covid-19 and H3N2 influenza from malaria," said Dr Vijay Kumar Gurjar, Senior Consultant and Head of the Department of Geriatric Medicine, Primus Super Speciality Hospital, New Delhi.
Malaria is distinct from Covid-19 and H3N2 influenza in that it is not transmitted from one individual to another. This is because the plasmodium parasite that causes malaria is spread via bites from infected female anopheles mosquitoes. In contrast, the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for Covid-19 spreads through respiratory droplets, while the H3N2 influenza virus can spread through both respiratory droplets and contact with contaminated surfaces.
Besides some similar symptoms like fever, headache and body aches, there is also a multitude of symptoms that differ significantly in the case of the three.
With malaria, prominent symptoms include chills, muscle pain, nausea, and vomiting among others, and if left untreated it can turn severe and debilitating, resulting in complications such as anaemia, kidney failure, and cerebral malaria, which can be life-threatening.
In the case of Covid-19 and H3N2 influenza, fever, cough, fatigue, sore throat, and runny nose are the primary symptoms. However, Covid-19 also presents with additional symptoms such as loss of taste or smell and shortness of breath.
The duration of the incubation period plays a crucial role in distinguishing between these illnesses. Covid-19 symptoms usually manifest between 2 to 14 days following exposure, with an average incubation time of 5-6 days. The H3N2 flu virus has an incubation period of 1-4 days, whereas malaria's incubation period can extend from 7 days to many months.
The modalities of treating Covid-19, malaria and H3N2 influenza differ significantly owing to the distinct etiologies of these diseases. Malaria is typically treated with antimalarial medications alongside effective measures to contain mosquito spread.
Covid-19 necessitates a multipronged approach including medication, supportive care, and vaccination. On the other hand, H3N2 influenza is managed using antiviral agents along with symptomatic treatment to alleviate fever, cough and sore throat.
Tests that determine the infection
Determining the kind of infection is responsible for similar symptoms from three different diseases, there are distinguished diagnostic tests available.
"The most commonly used method to detect malaria is the microscopic examination of blood smears, which is based on the detection of the malaria parasite in red blood cells. Alternatively, rapid diagnostic tests that detect malaria antigens in blood samples are widely used due to their ease of use and rapid turnaround time," said Dr Vijay Kumar Gurjar.
The diagnosis of H3N2 is typically made using antigen tests that detect the viral antigen in respiratory secretions, while PCR-based assays can provide more accurate results. In contrast, the diagnosis of Covid-19 relies heavily on PCR-based tests that detect viral RNA in respiratory secretions.
Most importantly, consulting a doctor the moment these symptoms persist for a certain period of time is essential.