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Malaria is caused by protozoan of the genus Plasmodium. There are several stages in the life cycle of Plasmodium, including sporozoites, merozoites, and gametocytes. Sporozoites are the form that is injected by the mosquito into humans. Infection begins with a bite from an infected mosquito. After being injected into the human host by the mosquito, the parasite travels into the bloodstream and eventually makes its way to the liver, where the parasite begins to reproduce and develop into merozoites. The merozoites leave the liver and enter red blood cells to reproduce. Soon, new parasites burst out in search of new red blood cells to infect.
Sometimes, the reproducing Plasmodia will create a form known as a gametocyte in the human bloodstream, which is infectious to mosquitoes. If a mosquito takes a blood meal when gametocytes are present, the parasite begins to reproduce in the insect and create sporozite forms that are infectious to people, completing the life cycle.
There are five species of Plasmodium that infect humans:
Clinicians who treat malaria in the United States are sometimes asked, "Is it contagious?" The answer is that malaria is not spread directly from person to person. A few cases have occurred in other countries through blood transfusion, intravenous drug abuse with shared needles, or organ transplant. An infected mother can spread malaria through the placenta to her unborn child.
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