Malaria – a retrospective

Only fourteen more sleeps until World Malaria Day! How are you going to celebrate this special day?

Me? I’m probably going to cast my mind back to late 2001 when I was living in Vanuatu and malaria decided to take me for a spin. What a ride that was.

According to the World Health Organisation’s figures, 200 million cases of malaria occur every year.

“Symptoms of malaria include fever, headache, and vomiting, and usually appear between 10 and 15 days after the mosquito bite. If not treated, malaria can quickly become life-threatening by disrupting the blood supply to vital organs. In many parts of the world, the parasites have developed resistance to a number of malaria medicines.” WHO

Rather than try to recall the terror, I’ll share some words from a travel diary. Here’s what I wrote shortly after meeting malaria for the first time:

My most intense health-related experience came in late December 2001. I was looking after Masaaki – a 15-year-old Japanese boy who spoke virtually no English but yet had a mature and effective approach to cross-cultural communication. We had just walked around 10km to and from a beautiful waterfall – I did not at this stage realise that it was going to be my last trip before an earthquake altered the area. It was Christmas Eve and we were downtown in the Seafront Park waiting to see all the well-anticipated night-time action unfold. I felt extremely lethargic so I lay in the foetal position while my friends were taking care of their respective needs.

As I lay there alone two men, who I was immediately suspicious of, approached me and began talking to me in a way that seemed insincere. They asked me what I was doing and I told them I wasn’t feeling too good so I’d probably head straight back to my house. One of them suggested, by using an idiom that he assumed I would not know, I was then going to proceed to masturbate. “What?” I asked him, somewhat shocked by his vulgarity. He was surprised that I understood and gave a pathetic apology in response. Then he asked me if I could buy him some beer seeing as though we were friends. After I rejected that ‘offer’ he asked if I could buy him some cigarettes. “No!” I was often asked to buy cigarettes for people and I always told these people that I would not support the tobacco giants. In a final plea I was asked to buy some orange juice for my “new friends”. “No,” I replied again. Clearly frustrated, they left mumbling some profanities under their breath. Soon Masaaki reappeared and I thought that it was time that I headed back home and got some rest.

Approximately two weeks before I came down with malaria.
Approximately two weeks before I came down with malaria. | Efate, Vanuatu | 2001

The next few days were horrible. I initially thought that I had sunstroke. Then I thought it was maybe the flu. I didn’t want anything for my condition because I wanted build up my immunity system as much as possible. But after two days I was feeling progressively worse and I could barely walk. So I went down to the hospital and collapsed on the dirty vinyl floor until I was attended to. The nurse laughed as I described my symptoms. “I think you have malaria,” she told me calmly. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing – I didn’t want to hear this. They took a blood test and sure enough I had malaria. My temperature was over 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) and in three days I had lost 15 kg (33 pounds). I felt terrible. I was given numerous bags of medicine and told to come back the following week. Malaria did not justify special treatment – there was too much of it around.

I knew that it normally two weeks for malaria to incubate so I did the maths and realised that the offending mosquito probably bit me when I was riding around Efate with my brother and a childhood friend. We were riding around Efate – we were supposed to be in Malekula but our ship failed to leave the harbour. We had slept at “Mosquito Corner” one night without nets. We had been making a short film that was to become a collectors’ item for people in Mele Maat village (due to the various scenes shot in Mele Maat) and lovers of pre-teen intellectual comedies.

So I spent close to two weeks in bed with aching bones, stinging headaches, intense fevers, violent nausea, hunger pains, dehydration, nervous shakes etc. Anything I ate or drank came straight back up, I was dry-retching bile, unable to sleep for more than 20 minutes, simple conversations were exhausting – virtually everything I could imagine was in a bad state. After swallowing the bitter medication I often felt depressed, I would spend hours thinking about all the people throughout the ages who had suffered: those who were factory workers during the industrial revolution who worked when they were sick, slaves who did the same for their cruel masters. These kinds of topics occupied my thoughts for several days. I tried to remain as optimistic as possible but that too required a lot of energy – something I did not have. There were a lot of great people around me who made numerous sacrifices to look after me and then I could really appreciate a side of friendship that I had not experienced before. I also learnt that the other two people who stayed at Mosquito Corner with me had also contracted malaria – I was not suffering alone.

After two weeks I was back on my feet. People told me I looked like a neglected prisoner – my eyes were deeply sunken with bags and I was extremely lean. Most people had heard about my bout with malaria but those who had not, were able to establish that something had happened to me just from my physical appearance. Masaaki, who had came over for his first holiday in the South Pacific had spent his first two weeks looking after me and for that I feel eternally grateful. He was incredibly mature for a boy of 15 years and his generous spirit still does not cease to impress me.

After this experience I was extremely proactive in my endeavours to avoid contracting malaria again. Every day I applied insect repellent, slept under a safer net, wore long sleeved shirts when possible, burnt mosquito coils and took Qing Hau – a herbal malarial preventative medicine that tasted worse than kava. Somehow mosquitoes often got into my netting and I would wake up in the morning to find a mosquito, full of my blood, buzzing around trying to escape from the netted area. I saw people in Mele Maat suffering from malaria but they would be lying outside alone taking the sun’s wrath during the day and then the mosquitoes at night. I could not think of worse circumstances in which to attempt to recover from malaria.