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A malaria patient in Sarasota County shares her story: 'It was just surreal'

Hannah Heath, 39, never imagined the illness she was experiencing was malaria. She's encouraging any Sarasota residents who may have similar symptoms to seek medical attention.
Hannah Heath
Hannah Heath, 39, never imagined the illness she was experiencing was malaria. She's encouraging any Sarasota residents who may have similar symptoms to seek medical attention.

After a rough five days in the hospital, Hannah Heath says she's working to protect her family from mosquito-borne diseases. She encourages others to follow guidance from health officials.

At first, Hannah Heath thought she might have food poisoning. The north Sarasota resident was vomiting and had chills and a fever. But several days later she was still really sick.

“Finally I called my husband and I was like, ‘You have to take me to the ER, I think I’m dehydrated; I think I need an IV,’ ” said Heath, 39.

This was in late June, and Heath said she wasn't aware yet that malaria cases were cropping up in Sarasota County. When doctors at Sarasota Memorial Hospital told her she likely had the disease, she felt disbelief.

“I was like, ‘You’re kidding me, right?’ ” Heath said. “Because I haven’t been outside the country, so it was just surreal.”

What we know about the outbreak

Heath is one of eight people who have contracted malaria in recent months from within the U.S., the nation’s first locally transmitted outbreak in 20 years. Aside from one case in Texas, all of the others have occurred in the northern part of Sarasota County.

The Florida Department of Health listed the most recent case in its weekly arbovirus report for July 9-15.

Residents in Sarasota and Manatee counties have been under mosquito-borne illness alert for nearly one month, as mosquito management staff work to rid the area of the species that carries malaria, anopheles.

Doctors at Sarasota Memorial Hospital have treated five of the county’s seven patients, according to Dr. Manuel Gordillo, director of infection control.

“The cases that are coming in are classic malaria, you know they come in with fever, body aches, headaches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea,” Gordillo said, explaining the hospital usually treats one or two patients a year who acquire malaria while in another country.

She felt "miserable" at first

The challenge, initially, was that those symptoms are common of many diseases, and given the first patient’s lack of travel history, staff weren’t expecting malaria, Gordillo said. It took lab workers noticing malaria parasites in a blood sample for doctors to even think of that as a diagnosis.

But they were on alert by the time Heath came in.

”They knew what to do pretty quickly, so I could start treatment pretty quickly,” Heath said.

Heath was in the hospital for five days and said she felt "miserable" in the beginning. In addition to dehydration, the malaria had lowered her platelet count, which increases risk for internal bleeding. That meant her movements had to be closely monitored, she said.

“I couldn’t get out of bed without somebody there to make sure I didn’t fall, and they wrapped padding around the edges of the bed, the side rails, because I could have hurt myself if I would have hit my arm, there could have been internal bleeding,” Heath said.

 Sarasota Memorial Hospital has treated five of the county's seven recent malaria cases.
Sarasota Memorial Hospital
Sarasota Memorial Hospital has treated five of the county's seven recent malaria cases.

The antimalarial drug she received to eliminate the parasites in her blood made her nauseous and gave her painful headaches at first, she said, which are common side effects. Staff also gave her medications to relieve that discomfort.

Some other malaria patients developed complications as well, Gordillo said, but in each case, staff were able to manage them.

“This has been around for years. There are good treatments, there's straight-forward diagnosis,” he said.

How recovery has been going

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, all locally acquired cases as of July 10 were of Plasmodium vivax malaria, a strain that typically produces milder symptoms or can even be asymptomatic but still can prove fatal, especially in those who are pregnant and in children.

So far, Gordillo said the patients Sarasota Memorial has seen have all responded well to treatment.

Despite the initial side effects, Heath said she started to feel the benefits of her malaria treatment after a few days. There was some lingering fatigue, but Heath said she was doing yoga again within days of discharge. She expressed gratitude for hospital staff for taking care of her during a difficult time.

“I do appreciate that they knew what it was. They knew how to take care of it and I’m feeling great now,” Heath said.

This week, Heath said she started a second round of medication from home that targets any remaining parasites that may be in her liver.

The experience has changed her

Ever since her experience, Heath said she makes sure to have bug spray when she, her husband and 6-year-old son spend time outdoors, especially in the evenings, when the Anopheles typically flies.

“I don't want anybody to go through that, but I'm just thinking like, I don't want to see my son go through what I went through, so I'm more aware of it,” Heath said.

In addition to applying mosquito repellant, officials say Sarasota and Manatee residents should also avoid areas with high mosquito populations and wear long sleeves when possible, especially during sunrise and sunset when mosquitoes are most active.

“Awareness is important and please follow the public health advice on how to avoid this disease,” Gordillo said.

Anyone experiencing symptoms that could be caused by malaria, such as a prolonged fever, should seek medical attention, he said, and Heath agrees.

“Know what the symptoms are, pay attention," Heath said. "If you think it’s possible you might have it, hopefully you can get into your regular doctor and they can run that test, and you don’t have to stay in the hospital for five days.”

Copyright 2023 WUSF 89.7

Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters, WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.