a favorite pastime of travelers, swapping travel-sickness horror
stories. Points are given for having to vomit or otherwise excrete
bodily fluids in embarrassing and uncomfortable places, having
feverish visions of Jesus astride a giant mosquito, getting treated
by a horny doctor wearing a stained lab coat in a fly colony of
a hospital, and catching something so rare and disgusting you
got written up in the annals of tropical medicine.
In my almost two years in Guinea, up until last month I could
only boast of a case of giardia that caused me to dirty my diapers
under the offended noses of colleagues on a UN plane sans
toilette. But finally I have earned my traveler’s wings:
I survived malaria.
Mix up the worst hangover you can imagine with menopausal hot
flashes, a severe ice-cream headache and assorted aches and pains,
and voila. You’d swear they weren’t parasites but
millions of tiny devil clones wielding hammers, torches and knives
from skull to toe.
Luckily there is a quick-test available at one of Conakry’s
two upscale health clinics (most of Conakry’s physicians
work half-days at the public hospitals and the rest in the cliniques
where they can earn their real keep). Simple as a home pregnancy
test, you put your drop of blood on the strip, and fifteen minutes
later, there you have it: one line, you’re in the clear,
two lines, you’ve got the most potentially devastating,
deadly and ancient of parasitic diseases in the world.
Plasmodium falciparum, found globally but most common
in Africa, is the most aggressive species. Left untreated, this
type often makes its host comatose or severely anemic before going
in for the kill. Some of these guys will rest in your liver for
years before manifesting -- once you’ve returned back to
the health-obsessed, safe-as-houses USA, where your local pharmacy
has the self-help pill chilling in the tropical medicine section,
and your local lab technician probably has extensive experience
identifying malaria’s single-celled mug on his slide.
Foreigners fear it like the ancients did the plague, though locals
treat it like the flu bug. During my bout of illness, I interviewed
a number of locals who told me they couldn’t begin to count
how many times they have had le palud - malaria - and
For an ancient, widespread and well-researched malady, however,
there certainly isn’t much agreement around here about its
causes and cures.
A colleague with a double PhD from an esteemed Canadian university
swears that the bananas in N’Zerekore carry malaria and
refrains from eating the fruit while on mission in this malaria-ridden
area. Another normally rational Guinean friend, so above the taboos
of African society that he is probably the only heterosexual in
Guinea to defend the rights of gays, claims that he has beat malaria
back every time in the past ten years by sweating it out with
a good game of soccer and run around the track. A French friend
even prescribed me a tisane made from the leaves of the
medicinal Kakiliba plant, which he read saved many a colonial
missionary from the bilious fever. I personally was not willing
to count on a mild-mannered herb to fight off parasites that stealthily
sleep and breed in your liver before unleashing themselves on
your blood cells until they burst, freeing them to seek new prey
and release toxins into your bloodstream.
But luckily I had the 48-hour version. Unluckily those 48 hours
happened to be a weekend, and was back on my feet just in time
to return to work on Monday.
While my mother never ceases to remind me of a statistic she read
that claims “two years in Africa takes ten years off your
life,” I prefer to take solace in the words of Nieztsche:
“What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.”
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