That Time I Had Malaria in West Africa

Well, it happened. After a little too much ambivalence about the whole malaria prophylaxis thing, a little bugger bit me and infected my blood with gross parasites. Welcome to my malaria story.

A week before the symptoms showed up, I was at a pool party when we began discussing malaria while bobbing in warm water surrounded by palm trees. 

“Getting malaria would be kind of a good story,” I said, stupidly. “I remember when I was a kid and I heard about my Great Uncle getting malaria in Cameroon, I thought it was the coolest thing ever.”

Okay, that’s kind of true. If you’re from North America or Europe, getting malaria is a pretty good sign that you haven’t lived a stagnant life, so there’s that. Let’s just say I kind of regretted those statements the following week though, when I was pretty sure I was going to die in a haze of sweat and despair. 

It was Sunday night and I had spent the weekend hibernating alongside episodes of Sex in the City and bowls of chocolate-covered cereal. I didn’t have much energy and had that sense of malaise that’s so hard to put a finger on, so I curled up in my bed and waited for it to pass. By 7pm that night, though, I began to feel cold. 

Now, if you’ve ever been to Ghana, you know it is never cold here. Ever. I don’t have air conditioning and the best that a ceiling fan can do is chill the sweat pouring out of your pores, sending your internal temperature to somewhere around “medium rare”. 

Besides the strange chill, I also began to feel the aches in my joints and lower back that made it clear that this was a fever. 

At the travel clinic you are told to go to before visiting most countries in Africa, the main refrain is, “If you have a fever, go to the hospital immediately.”

The thing is, it was late and dark and I didn’t have the energy to sit up, never mind walk. So I did what North Americans do and loaded up on pain killers, fever fighters, and sleep aids. Soon I was tumbling into a fitful sleep that lasted 3 hours, until I drugged myself to sleep again and went back to my sweaty sheets. Repeat 3-4 times. 

By that morning I was sure I was dying. My airways felt constricted and it was hard to breath, and my back and legs were in so much pain that several extra strength Tylenols did nothing to soothe them.

To add insult to injury, the water was out. Not that I could’ve had a warm shower to wash the chills away anyway, since this is Africa and I pay $300/month for a place without a working oven. 

I often think to myself that Ghana is paradise, with its sparkling ocean within eyeshot and its swaying green palms. The people are relaxed and friendly, there are great restaurants and bars, beautiful sandy beaches are everywhere, and everything is relatively cheap. It’s awesome.

However, when I was laying alone in my damp bed without access to soup, warm water, or someone to bring me things, I began to miss home just a little. That’s when I posted a woe is me Facebook status, which brought in messages of support and offers of warmth and soup from my awesome friends here in Ghana. 

Those messages were enough to rouse me from my fetal position onto my two shaking feet and out of my bedroom, then slowly and fragilely down the stairs. Thankfully there’s a hospital right next door to my apartment (sometimes I’m awakened by the screams of what I assume is child birth), so I didn’t have to go far.

Within minutes I was getting my thumb pricked in a lab, where they would be testing for malaria. I had stumbled into the reception room and asked to get tested for the big M because I didn’t know what else to say. The equivalent of $3 later and I was being told the test was negative.

Okay…now what? What do I have? Cue ruminating about tropical diseases. I immediately booked an appointment with a doctor.

About $20 and several minutes of rocking in a orange plastic chair later, my blood pressure and temperature were taken. That was followed by another 15 minutes in another orange plastic chair, then finally I was buzzed into the doctor’s office.

After explaining my symptoms and giving some background about how I was feeling, the doc said that it was almost definitely malaria. 

“Uh, but I tested negative for malaria,” I said, slightly scowling as I hunched forward to appease my aching back.

“It’s very rare for an adult to test positive. Look at all the blood you have! If they found the parasite in that tiny bit of blood they took from your thumb, that would mean you are dying.”

Okay…awesome…I guess? I’m not dying! Woo!

Minutes later I was out the door with a box of malaria drugs, of which I was to take four at a time, at 8-hour then 12-hour intervals. 

Soon the fever was gone and the buggies in my system were being wiped out by chemicals. I’ve never purposely killed an insect, but I was glad to conquer the buggers who were eating my red blood cells, let me tell you. 

It’s now been a week and a half and I’m basically back to normal. I can eat and sleep like a normal person again, and I’m no longer fantasizing about cutting off the lower part of my body because of pain. Score!

Thankfully I caught it in time and was extremely close to medical professionals, with plenty of money for treatment in my hand. Unfortunately, many people aren’t so lucky, and the majority of people who die from malaria are children who don’t have the large quantities of blood that us adults do. If you want to help those kids, check out Spread the Net, Malaria No More, or NetsforLife, which are organizations that supply African communities with mosquito nets. Prevention is key, and I’ve definitely learned my lesson. Mosquitos are everywhere here and malaria is a real threat.

With Malarone in my belly I’m back to life, and this weekend I’m heading to a waterfall and monkey sanctuary. Nothing like prettiness and primates to bring me back to the awesomeness that is Ghana. Stay tuned!

One Response to “That Time I Had Malaria in West Africa”
  1. vaniasze says:

    Ah Kelsey I am so glad to hear that you are feeling better. Yeep! Good way for me to gauge symptoms when I am there. Will see you soon!

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