Learn From my Mistake: I got Malaria

by Melissa on January 13, 2014 · 24 comments

My eyes opened slowly.  I gazed around the dark room of the beach hut that I was sharing with my friend from high school, Giancarlo.  My sheets and pillow were soaked with sweat.  I had that nagging feeling of nausea wash over me.  This was the fourth time that night that I had woken up with the feeling.  Despite three previous failed attempts to make myself throw up – I quietly got up, slipped on my flip flops, and made my way to the communal bathroom for throw up attempt #4.

It happened.  Oh did it ever happen.  malaria Vomit came spewing up with such incredible force that I didn’t have time to figure out how it ended up on the walls, the window, all over the top and back of the toilet.  It was everywhere.  But there was nothing I could do… it kept coming.   Even after there were no more remnants of last night’s no-longer-delicious pig roast dinner or stomach bile… the dry heaves continued.  Not once during this hour ordeal of being sick did I think I had malaria.

But 10 hours later, that is exactly what the doctor told me.  I had malaria.

You may be asking, “But aren’t there preventative pills or a shot for that?”

I would begrudgingly reply, “Yes.”

When preparing for my trip to Africa in Summer 2013, I did everything right.  I went to the travel clinic, got necessary shots, and prescriptions for any medications I may require – malaria prophylactics being one of them.  However, just because you acquire the Malarone (malaria prophylactics) doesn’t mean you’re always going to take them.  After about a week of being on my Nomad Adventure Tours Masai Mara & Gorillas Tour, I found myself feeling very lethargic, spending a lot of my time sleeping – more than normal.  After a few days I figured perhaps it was the Malarone.  I spoke with a few others who had been travelling or had previously travelled through Africa for extended periods of times – some said they hadn’t ever used any prophylactics and were fine despite having travelled through some known malaria areas.  I stopped taking my pills. malaria 1 month later – somewhere along the line a mosquito bit me and I got malaria.

What were my malaria symptoms?

  • Vomiting for an hour (including dry heaves)
  • Intense nausea
  • Stomach pains
  • Sweats
  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Absolutely NO appetite (completely unlike me)
  • Zero energy

How long did it last?

Short answer: 3-4 days.  The worst of it was on the first day – when I vomited, slept for 16hours, and had zero appetite.  Luckily they took me to the doctor that day and I was given pills to take for 3 days.  The next day I woke up feeling about 70% better, but by lunchtime had returned to having no appetite and the same intense nausea and sweats had also come back.  The third day I was about 90% better; my energy levels were back up and I no longer felt nauseous, but I lacked an appetite.  The lack of an appetite lasted for about a week.

Wasn’t going to the doctor in Africa scary?!

At that point I was desperate to get to the bottom of what was ailing me so I could start to get better.  The scariest part about it was the fact that my tour guide had put me in a cab by myself and had negotiated with the driver to stay with me.  The driver did, and it was all hunky-dory until we were driving back to the campsite I was to be staying at that night and the driver told me it would be over double the price we had agreed upon.  I was more afraid of being left at the side of the road in rural Malawi so I begrudgingly paid him – but not without telling him he  “was a bad man and that God would get [him] back for what [he] was doing” first.

I was taken to a 24-hr private clinic in Lilongwe, Malawi (the capital city).  It was run by two Pakistani doctors.  The Malawian nurse had a no-nonsense attitude and was very blunt with her comments – it’s okay though, at that point I didn’t care for sugar coating.  The other Malawian lab tech who took my blood sample was very professional – although I don’t know how she was able to do her work in the dark lab. malaria The blood sample was a simple pinprick on my index finger, and then the blood was wiped onto a slide.  I waited less than 5 minutes before they came back and told me my diagnosis:  malaria. 

They sat me back down, gave me three different drugs- the anti-malarial pills, the anti-nausea pills, and paracetamol for my fever and general aches and pains.  The anti-malarials were on a very strict time regiment.  All up – my doctor’s visit (including drugs) cost me the equivalent of $17USD.  Not too bad if you ask me.

What did I learn from having malaria?

Of all the people it could happen to, it doesn’t actually surprise me that I contracted malaria.  I am known for acquiring travel injuries and illnesses.

I do not wish malaria upon anyone. Not even my worst enemy.

I can no longer ever consider being a blood donor… I no longer qualify.

I’ve learned that if I’m given prophylactics to take them in their entirety, no matter how much of an inconvenience they may seem to be at the time. malaria I also learned that sleeping on top of the overland truck one night, under the beautiful African sky- although visually stunning, was probably a stupid move.  Despite lathering myself in (likely cancer-causing) 80% DEET mosquito repellant and wearing long pants and sleeves, I somehow managed to get bitten by a damn mosquito that was carrying malaria- likely in my sleep.

I was very lucky to have caught it the first day I showed symptoms; I was also very lucky to be en route to the capital city of Malawi.  If it had been 2 days earlier… who knows what would have happened to me – because I’m sure a trip from Kande Beach to a private medical clinic would have really made use of my travel insurance.

I can conclude with utmost confidence that malaria would be an absolutely awful way to go – and it’s terrible to think that so many people in third world countries do end up dying from this awful disease.  Be a smart traveller – take the proper precautions (including taking your doctor prescribed medications) and protect yourself against this potentially life-threatening illness!

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Anne January 13, 2014 at 1:00 pm

Certainly a frightening ordeal.

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Melissa January 13, 2014 at 10:51 pm

It sure was – but once I saw the doctor and had the medicine I knew it would be fine. I just didn’t want to tell you at the time cause I didn’t need you freaking out and offering to fly to AFRICA! lol

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Paula January 13, 2014 at 4:14 pm

So interesting as I did much the same thing with my 7 months in Asia…started taking a prescription for anti-malaria then stopped on hearing so many people were fine without…luckily my story ended without any malaria but definitely makes you think twice! That being said I have since found out about homeopathic options to take as a precaution if you don’t want the pharmaceuticals!

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Melissa January 13, 2014 at 10:52 pm

Oh! I’d love to hear about the homeopathic options!

You were lucky not to get it. Although I’m sure most people are generally okay. I just tend to have really bad luck when it comes to getting sick or hurt.

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Hayley January 13, 2014 at 8:58 pm

So sorry this happened to you Mel! I had to go to a doctor in Bali and that was enough of an experience for me! Lucky you made it through :) x
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Melissa January 13, 2014 at 10:52 pm

Aw thanks Hayley! It was no fun, that’s for sure.

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Amanda Lane January 14, 2014 at 1:37 am

hey melissa,
sorry you got malaria! I just wanted to say that prophylactics like malarone are actually generally frowned upon in Africa by locals and by doctors. I am currently living in a high malarial area in Northern Namibia (Namibia’s only malarial area, lucky me) and not taking any prophylactics because my boyfriend, his family, his friends, his doctors all seem to be of the opinion that it is not only unnecessary, but potentially harmful. Their reasoning is that prophylactics sometimes mask the symptoms of malaria rather than combat it so that by the time you stop taking the medication and the symptoms start to show, it might already be too late for treatment. This happened to a friend of my boyfriend, in fact, who did take malaria medication and did not catch his symptoms until they became fatal. Since it is so easily treated (for people who have healthcare access and can afford it), Africans seem to be of the opinion that it is best to catch it and treat it right awake then risk catching it and treating it after it’s had time to manifest. Seems like luck of the draw to me though – some people react well to medication, others not, some people get bitten by infected mosquitos, others not. Seems like a horrible ordeal to go through though. But, I continue not to take medication although it’s something I do think about from time to time (especially when I get bitten by a mosquito)!

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Melissa January 15, 2014 at 2:12 pm

I totally hear what you’re saying. I don’t think it’s healthy for anyone to be on prophylactics for too long. Definitely people who live there should not be on them for extended periods of time because- well.. that’s just silly and probably does more harm than good. You’re also completely right about the fact that it IS easily treated for those who can afford it (and catch it early). Good luck! I hope you don’t go through what I did… was not fun. Hope you’re having the time of your life living in Namibs!

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Stacey January 14, 2014 at 3:53 am

Wow this is scary! I’m so glad you were ok. I get bitten like you wouldn’t believe-mozzies love me and I also swell up so I usually put on tons of deet as well. I used Doxy when I was in Indonesia and Cambodia and never had a problem but it’s a tough call!
I’m sorry you were so sick, there’s nothing worse than projectile vomiting, especially when you’re far from home!
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Melissa January 15, 2014 at 2:13 pm

Thanks Stacey – it would be JUST my luck to contract the malaria. Mozzies love me too, so I guess it was bound to happen. I’ve heard people having adverse reactions sometimes to Doxy, I hope you didn’t have any!

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Monica January 14, 2014 at 6:37 am

This sounds absolutely horrific, you poor thing.
I really love that even from this you’ve got a positive slant on it with what your learnt and sharing the experience with others.
I’ve skipped taking malaria tablets before but I definitely won’t be again!
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Melissa January 15, 2014 at 2:15 pm

Well.. thankfully I lived to tell the tale ;) And to be honest, looking back, I do find it kind of humorous. Didn’t help that I was in the middle of nowhere with no way of reaching anyone – the following day managed to get about 15min of internet and messaged my boyfriend saying “Hi babe, I have malaria, I went to the doctor and am now taking pills to get better, please don’t tell my mom. Will talk to you in a few days.”

Don’t get malaria!

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Jessica Wray January 14, 2014 at 8:10 am

Wow, I’m so sorry! This is an eye opener because I am also one of those people who stops taking medications. I’ve stopped the malaria ones a few times before. Once I stopped because they were making me hallucinate in the middle of the night but…..ugh, what can you do?!

So glad you caught this early and are sharing it with us!
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Melissa January 15, 2014 at 2:17 pm

Next time you travel to a malaria zone – see if there is a different type of malaria prophylactic, Malarone tends to have the least amount of side effects (although it IS the most expensive… luckily my drug plan covers it). This wasn’t the first time I stopped taking my pills – but last time I wasn’t in a malaria area… so I stopped taking them because they were pointless… this time I wasn’t so lucky.

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Kieu January 14, 2014 at 10:24 am

Omg you poor thing!!! And that stupid driver. I’m like you — I am probed to accidents and bad luck. I came close to ditching our pills in India but stuck to it bc the trip was short. I can’t imagine going through malaria for 4 days.. in Africa no less. So glad to hear you’re alright. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone either. Safe travels.
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Melissa January 15, 2014 at 2:19 pm

Oh my god… the taxi driver? I could have killed him. Honestly. I knew he was just extorting me at that point, but I simply didn’t have the energy to put up a fight at that point.

If you end up making it to Africa, be sure to take your pills if you’re headed to malaria zones! :)

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Jeff @ Go Travelzing January 14, 2014 at 1:42 pm

Wow. That really sucks! I just returned from the Amazon where I made sure to take the pills. I was wondering if all the vaccines and pills were worth the trouble but it sounds like they were.
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Melissa January 15, 2014 at 2:21 pm

It does seem absolutely ridiculous when you walk away from the travel clinic with scripts for about 4 or 5 different medications, 2 or 3 bandaids on your arm covering up where you’ve just been stabbed with needles, and a few hundred dollars poorer… ahhh.. the things we do for travel ;) Worth it.

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Debbie Sherwood January 15, 2014 at 9:11 am

Glad you are OK now… What a horrific experience and I am sure being far from home made it harder! Good advice for future travelers!
Stay well Melissa!

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Melissa January 15, 2014 at 2:22 pm

Yeah… actually the worst part about the whole experience was when I made it back to the campsite with my positive malaria results, and I was told that despite the fact the campsite was known for having good wifi, the network was down, and I had to miss out on a Skype-date I’d planned with the boyfriend. It was the one thing that made me cry that day. Pathetic, I know ;)

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Celia - Nomadic Danes January 20, 2014 at 5:56 pm

Omg – just found your blog and this is the first post I read. That sounds so terrifying! I’m so glad to hear that you’re ok. What a crazy experience!

We’re in Central America and we’re not taking anything yet. We’re in Mexico now that should have no risk. But when we continue… Argh, I don’t know what to do! I’ve heard of people who get depressions from the medicine… Ugh. Stupid mosquitos…

I’ll subscribe to your blog right away! Love following other travellers. :) Safe travels!

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Melissa February 4, 2014 at 12:10 pm

Hi Celia,

It was terrifying – I just couldn’t figure out why I felt so crappy. Things didn’t add up until my tour guide said he thought I may have malaria – then it all seemed to make sense.

In terms of medications – maybe go to a travel clinic and discuss it with a doctor. Malarone is the most expensive of the prophylactics, but tends to have the fewest side effects. A doctor would know best, though.

Thanks for the support, and all the best with your travels in Mexico and S. America! :)

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Luke March 1, 2014 at 5:14 pm

Isn’t there a shot available for malaria instead of taking the pills? Before I came to Colombia I had to get vaccinated for yellow fever (which I think is kind of similar to malaria) and I was given a choice between taking the pills or having a shot done. I opted for the shot (otherwise, like you I would have just stopped taking the pills or forgotten).
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Deepak Sudera April 5, 2014 at 12:52 am

Hi,
Thanx to info abt malaria symptoms..this is the first post I read.your learnt and sharing the experience with others.
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