A range of activities are currently underway to improve access to malaria prevention and control interventions. As disease control strategies change over time, it is crucial to understand the health-seeking behaviour and the local socio-cultural context in which the changes in interventions operate. This paper reflects on how people in an area of seasonal malaria perceive the causes and transmission of the disease, and what prevention and treatment measures they practise to cope with the disease. It also highlights some of the challenges of malaria treatment for health care providers. The study was undertaken in 2003 in Adami Tulu District in south-central Ethiopia, where malaria is a major health problem. Pre-tested structured questionnaires and focus group discussions were conducted among men and women. Malaria, locally known as busa, was perceived as the most important cause of ill health in the area. Respondent’s perception and knowledge about the cause and transmission of the disease were relatively high. The newly introduced insecticide-treated nets were not popular in the area, and only 6·4% of households possessed at least one. The results showed that patients use multiple sources of health care for malaria treatment. Public health facilities, private clinics and community health workers were the main providers of malaria treatment. Despite higher treatment costs, people preferred to use private health care providers for malaria treatment due to the higher perceived quality of care they offer. In conclusion, effort in the prevention and control of malaria should be intensified through addressing not only public facilities, but also the private sector and community-based control interventions. Appropriate and relevant information on malaria should be disseminated to the local community. The authors propose the provision of effective antimalarial drugs and malaria prevention tools such as subsidized or free insecticide-treated nets.