You can’t truly be considered a full-fledged International Aid Worker until you’ve contracted one of the local illnesses. In most parts of Africa, malaria is so common that if you come down with the flu the locals almost always assume it’s malaria. The reason that malaria is so common is that it is caused by a parasite that is transmitted via mosquitos, and mosquitos are everywhere!
Up until a few days ago I’d been rather lucky when it comes to illnesses in the Congo. I only had some minor stomach problems once, and I think that was caused by eating a bad egg rather than some local cuisine, and the occasional physical injury due to my own clumsiness. Sadly, my tendency to not sleep under a mosquito net finally outmatched my anti-malaria pills, and a few nights ago after an evening run my body began to seriously ache.
What I thought was dehydration from running in this hot, humid air, turned out to be the beginning of the most horrible night I can remember. (Note: There were times in my childhood when I ended up in hospitals due to severe asthma attacks, but, thankfully, I have only a vague recollection of an oxygen chamber.) What I experienced that night turned out to be the textbook order of symptoms for malaria:
- Body Aches: The whole body starts to hurt! It was somewhere between the muscle pain from dehydration and doing a full week of P90X in one day having not exercised in a year. Basically, every muscle in my body hurt.
- Cold Sweats: This came on right after I got into bed. Your body starts to chill but sweats at the same time. This has been persistent through the whole thing and three days in this hasn’t really gone away. It’s quite annoying and I’m running out of clean shirts.
- Chills: Ok, so about an hour into trying to sleep I began getting incredibly cold. I turned off the AC and the fan, opened the door to let in the hot air, but none of that helped. I was instantly teleported back to the winter of 2005-6 in Ukraine when all the heating in the city was out and it was well below Zero. Nothing I did would help and even though it was incredibly hot in my room I ended up wrapping myself in multiple thick fur blankets to try and stay warm.
- Insomnia: As you can imagine, shivering, sweating, and body aches don’t make it easy to sleep.
- Fever: It was about 4-5 hours into my hellaciously freezing night when I realized I was burning up. I felt like I was going to have to get up and fill the tub with coldish water and sit in it (can’t really get ice in Congo at 4am). I couldn’t find the thermometer until the next morning but I’m pretty sure it was around 103 from past experiences, but I was also pretty delusional at this point.
- Lethargy: By the time I got up in the morning the fever seemed to have gone, but I was left in a state of malaise with a sever feeling of lethargy. I was tired, weak, and didn’t want to do anything.
So, even though I didn’t really want to do anything, I knew I needed to Google the symptoms. There’s a cholera outbreak in Kisangani right now so I needed to make sure it wasn’t that. Also, typhoid fever is common here, and even though I’ve been vaccinated I’d heard it’s nowhere near 100%, so that had to be checked. But I had a feeling it was malaria.
The diagnosis wasn’t confirmed until 4:00pm that afternoon. It took visits to a military base doc, a self-diagnosis kit which failed because I take anti-malarial medication, a hospital and doctor there, a laboratory to test my blood, return to the lab to get the results, return to the hospital to have them interpreted but the doctor was gone, visit to another doctor in the city to have him interpret the results, and finally someone saying – Yeah, you have malaria.
Apparently I had a really mild case. Some people feel like they’re dying until soon after they start taking the medication which kills off the parasites. The meds actually work rather quickly and even the first dose can lead to major improvements. I still have two of my six doses left to go, but I’m already feeling much better.
I’ve now hung a mosquito net in my bedroom.