Malaria is Like the Flu (kind of)

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In November of 2011 my husband and I flew over to Uganda with Invisible Children.  It was my first trip to Africa.  I got the required Yellow Fever vaccination and inquired about anti-malaria medication.  I was told by several people who had gone over to Uganda many times before that the anti-malaria pills were not necessary and in fact, they could make you feel terribly sick.  I was assured that malaria medication would be cheap and readily available in Uganda should I receive a bite from an infected mosquito.  I’ve never been a huge fan of taking prescription drugs and I didn’t truly understand how prevalent the disease was and is.  The personal testimonies from our experienced colleagues were enough evidence for my husband and I to decide to opt out of taking the preventative drugs.

During our 23 hours of flying time from Los Angeles to London to Uganda I caught my husband’s cold, got a cold sore, and started my period.  Needless to say, I was not feeling my best.  I was so exhausted and dizzy when our plane landed in Entebbe, Uganda.

After 10 days with the Invisible Children crew in Northern Uganda, my husband and I hired a guide to drive us to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to see the gorillas.  Buhoma is the community that borders the forest and offers village walks to tourists.  Part of the tour included visiting the local medicine man, Alfonse Bifumbo.

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Alfonse was born in the Congo, hence his French name, and moved to Uganda as a young man.  His father was a traditional African healer who had passed on all of his knowledge of plants to his son.  Alfonse has been using herbs to cure people of their ailments and illnesses for decades.  From impotence to malaria to evil curses, Alfonse has an herbal remedy.

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I had never met a ‘medicine man’ before and was intrigued.  One of my biggest passions is studying herbs and preparing herbal concoctions.  I was still experiencing intermittent dizziness and brain fog when we arrived at Alfonse’s house.  I asked Alfonse if he could look at my tongue (like in Chinese medicine) and tell me about my health.  Instead, he looked into my eyes and noticed a greenish tint on my irises.  He said that I was getting malaria.  I wasn’t surprised – I had been bitten by a few mosquitos about a week ago.  He also said that my husband was fine and didn’t have malaria.  I didn’t discount Alfonse’s words, but I knew that I would need some concrete evidence.

A few days later our driver took us back to Kampala.  Our crappy van kicked up huge storms of dust for the 6 hour ride on the bumpy, pothole-ridden, dirt road.  Something was wrong; I usually looked out of the window and the people and the landscape.  I took pictures and had conversations with our driver, but all I wanted to do was just lay down on the backseat and go to sleep.  I had plenty of sleep the night before but I was still incredibly tired.  I slept for most of the 6 hour ride only to get up twice to eat a quick snack.

That evening after our driver had dropped us off in Kampala we reunited with our good friend, Steve, who suggested that I take a malaria blood test.  Testing facilities were not only abundant but also open until 10:00 PM.  The blood test only costed $2.00, so we went.  The lab technician was a young, stunning Ugandan woman with long, micro braids.  Her attitude was confident, comfortable, and bored.  I could see that her job did not challenge her in the least.  She moved through the motions mechanically and probably could’ve done it all with her eyes closed.  Alarm bells started going off in my head when she didn’t put on gloves before drawing my blood.  I asked her about this.  She took offense to my question and asked if I thought she was going to give me something.  I said, “No” but I was thinking “Maybe.”   I shared with her that it was standard practice in the United States to wear gloves for most procedures – especially when drawing blood. She said matter-of-factly that there wasn’t enough money to be equipped with all the necessary supplies.  We were off to a bad start.

10 minutes later she told me that I tested positive for malaria.  What?!?  I didn’t believe her.  In an instant the paranoia button in my brain had been switched to “On”.  I immediately thought that she was lying and that she marked my test positive to get me to buy the malaria pills from their pharmacy; I thought that she and the other employees at the testing center just wanted to scam me.  I wanted to look at my blood smear under the microscope, but she claimed that she had already disposed of it.  I wasn’t satisfied.  I asked to be retested because I wanted to see the parasites with my own eyes.  After much convincing and eventually pleading, she agreed.  At that moment I realized that she was not lying; she had no reason to lie.  She’d performed thousands of these tests before and malaria is as common in Africa as the flu is in the States (that’s what every Ugandan person told me anyway).  Now I was just genuinely interested in seeing what the parasites looked like.  My husband decided to get his blood tested, too.

I’ve taken people’s word for it; I’ve been gullible, naive, trusting, and I’ve been burned.  I’ve learned to be more skeptical and inquisitive, but that night in Kampala my healthy skepticism crossed over into paranoia.  Fortunately, the technician knew how to put my mind at ease.  She showed me a slide under the microscope with a blood sample from a man who had severe malaria.  The parasites were everywhere in his blood.  She then showed me my own blood smear and we had to look very carefully to find the parasites.  They were so small and so sparse that you really had to ‘play investigator’ in order to find them, but alas, they were there.  I was amazed; it was absolutely fascinating!  I wasn’t happy that I had malaria, but I was relieved to know that we had detected it during the early stages.  It’s when the disease goes undiagnosed does it become serious and possibly fatal.  My husband tested negative for malaria.  Alfonse, the medicine man, had been right.

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The technician and I talked for awhile after the test had been completed.  She knew that I didn’t mean to offend her; she saw that I was just scared.  She shared with me that she’d gotten malaria 12 times so far.  She saw how interested I was in her ‘investigative work’ looking for the parasites under the microscope – I doubt that any of her local patients were as interested.  They were used to getting malaria; I was not.  Her attitude shifted and she suddenly became proud of her job.  She went on to share with me that she wanted to move to London to work because she made very little money in Uganda and she, too, wanted to have access to all the latest technology and medical supplies.  She felt like she wasn’t advancing in her current position at that testing center in Kampala.  She had seen my fear and I saw her’s.  What started with judgement and assumptions ended with understanding and compassion.

I purchased the malaria medication, Malanil, for $45.00 and finished taking it before I flew back home to the States.  To be on the safe side and put my mind at ease I got retested at my doctor’s office and the results came back negative.  It’s been 9 months since then.  I’ve taken herbs to detox and strengthen my liver, but I haven’t done an intense parasite cleanse yet.  I think now is the time and, of course, I’ll tell you all about it.

The moral of this story is to take the anti-malaria drugs before and during your stay in Africa.  Talk to your doctor about the specifics.  I will definitely do this next time.  I learned my lesson the hard way and I won’t make the same mistake twice.