Malaria Nightmares

It’s 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 beat it.

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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