A 4-year-old girl died of malaria in Italy, in what appears to be the country’s first non-travel-related case of the mosquito-carried disease in decades, the Italian Health Ministry said on Tuesday after confirming her death.
The ministry said that a team of experts had been sent to investigate the incident.
The Health Board of northern town of Trento where the girl was hospitalised before her death said that she had never been to any malaria-infected countries, adding that the source of her contagion was uncertain.
“It seems that the girl may have picked up malaria in hospital in Trento and that would be a very serious matter,” Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin told reporters.
According to the health officials, the girl was first hospitalised in Trento and later moved on Saturday in a coma to a better-equipped clinic in Brescia where she died on Monday.
Two children from Burkina Faso, who contracted malaria during a trip home, were said to have been successfully treated at the Trento hospital when the deceased was admitted for diabetes treatment.
“The suspicion is that there may be a link” between these cases, even though the malaria children were in a different room, Trento Health Authority Chief Paolo Bordon said.
One possibility is that the malaria patients returned from Burkina Faso with a malaria-carrying mosquito in their bags and unwittingly introduced it to the hospital.
Its premises have been disinfected.
Giampiero Carosi, an immunologist from the University of Brescia, instead suggested that a mosquito in Italy may have bitten a carrier of the disease and passed it on the girl.
“It is an exceptional case,” Carosi said.
Trento health authorities said “the growing number of international travellers and migration flows from [malaria] endemic areas” contributes to the spreading of malaria.
Italy’s anti-immigrant Northern League party responded to the death by calling for the “hermetic sealing of borders, mass expulsions and widespread and thorough health checks on asylum seekers.”
The World Health Organisation (WHO) had in 2016 declared Europe a malaria-free region, however, the disease is still imported by people returning from abroad.
In Italy, there has recently been an average of more than 600 such cases per year.
According to the WHO, 90 per cent of malaria cases and 92 per cent of deaths from the disease take place in Africa, but south-east Asia, Latin America and the Middle East are also affected.
No deaths from the disease have been reported in Europe since at least 2000.
According to the latest WHO statistics, there were 212 million new malaria cases in 2015, and 429,000 deaths, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa.
However, global mortality rates have fallen by 29 per cent in the 2010-2015 period.