A married couple from Kampenhout in Flemish Brabant who died of malaria were probably infected by a mosquito that arrived in Belgium from Africa via the airports at Zaventem or Melsbroek, experts said.
The case is currently being investigated by the Flemish healthcare agency and the Institute for Tropical Medicine in Antwerp. No details have been given of the couple’s identity. The fatal infection too place in late September.
Malaria – the name suggests that early explorers thought it was caused by poor air conditions – is caused by the parasite Plasmodium, which lives on the female Anopheles mosquito.
The parasite makes its way to the liver and from there into the bloodstream, where it invades and destroys red blood cells, leading to the typical fever in the early stages.
The disease can be fatal if smaller blood vessels become blocked, particularly those in the brain.
Malaria continues to be widespread in the world, with the World Health Organisation estimating 228 million cases worldwide in 2018, leading to 405,000 fatalities, mainly in Africa.
Since the unfortunate couple had not visited the subtropical parts of Africa, Asia and South America where Anopheles thrives, the health case agency theorises the mosquito must have arrived in Belgium at the airport at Zaventem or the air base at nearby Melsbroek, both of which are about 6-7 kilometres from Kampenhout – a distance the insect could easily cover.
Malaria cases occur in Belgium, but infections are very rare. According to the Institute for Tropical Medicine, 275 cases were recorded in 2015, and 351 in 2018, all of them people returning from visiting the areas affected.
One of the best-know cases was that of Stefan Everts, the motocross champion who took part in a charity event in Congo without taking the prophylactic medication normally prescribed before a visit.
Everts became infected, went into a coma, almost died, and had to have toes amputated when blood flow to his feet was lost. In an interview with TV channel Sporza in May he described how he still suffers pain in his right foot on a daily basis.