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In rare event, Florida man contracts malaria

A 40-year-old homeless man has contracted the first case of malaria without leaving South Florida in at least 50 years.

Robert Brenton Woods, a former roofer who lived for a week in a camp for vagrants near Palm Beach International Airport, was reported in stable condition Wednesday at Columbia Hospital in West Palm Beach.

"I didn't know if I was going to live or die," Woods said from his hospital bed. "My whole body was shaking real bad and it felt like my legs were coming off."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta confirmed late Tuesday that Woods had malaria, prompting county health officials to warn residents to take precautions against nighttime mosquitoes.

The Anopheles quadrimaculatus complex of four mosquito species is known to transmit the disease. The insects are active at night, usually travel within a radius of 2 miles and are found in small numbers in South Florida.

Three of the five people who also live in the homeless camp were given blood tests Wednesday and are awaiting preliminary results that should be ready in a day or two.

Officials plan to check canals for larvae and set up additional traps in the area to monitor mosquito activity. When the traps are retrieved later this week, the agency will determine whether local spraying is necessary.

"If we sprayed now, we'd have a lot of dead mosquitoes and very few in our traps," said Ron Day, head of Palm Beach County's Mosquito Control. "First we study, then we spray. But it would be a good idea for people in the area to keep their doors closed and make sure screens are in good repair."

One other case of someone acquiring malaria without leaving Florida has been reported in the state in the past half-century. That occurred in June 1990 and involved a woman camping in the Panhandle, state health officials said.

Dr. Jean Malecki, the Palm Beach County Health Department director, said health workers plan to contact two county residents known to have contracted malaria during foreign travel in the past three months. The workers want to take blood samples to try to determine whether one of those people was an indirect source of Woods' ailment.

"That finding would be ideal. It would be nice to know there's not another case floating around," Malecki said.

Said Day: "The malaria most likely came by way of a mosquito bite from someone who has the disease or is in remission."

The disease can be transmitted through shared needles and transfusions, but Woods did not have a history of either.

Woods said his temperature reached 104.4 degrees. Nurses reduced the fever by placing him on a platform filled with ice. He has the mildest form of malaria, Plasmodium vivax, and is expected to recover, a hospital spokeswoman said.

"I hope this will be the lowest point for me and my life turns around," said Woods, who was electrocuted on a roofing job eight years ago in Ocala. Part of a leg had to be amputated after the accident.

Malaria occurs in much of the tropics and affects about 300-million people worldwide each year. The disease kills 1-million infants and children every year in Africa alone, according to the World Health Organization.

About 1,000 cases are reported in the United States each year, with 10 to 30 of those cases transmitted locally by mosquitoes that bite an infected person and then bite someone else, the CDC has reported.

Visitors to the tropics, particularly those who plan nighttime activities, should take anti-malarial drugs a day or two before entering a potentially infected area, and their use should be continued for at least four weeks after leaving it, the CDC suggests.

"I know it's hot, but this isn't the tropics. Who'd think you could get malaria here?" said Rick Kennamer, who lives in the homeless camp and is awaiting test results. "I sure hope Bob recovers. Nobody deserves to get sick like that."

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