Depending on who you talk to out here malaria is either an ever-present danger, a dark rite of passage that is part of your induction to Africa; or it is “not a problem”, over-hyped and hard to catch, with infected mosquitoes only active for a few hours in the early hours of the morning (there is some evidence to suggest this last point is true).
Whoever is right, I can report that I have had it.
Symptoms of malaria are notoriously variable and hard to pin down. Fever and headache are par for the course, but everyone seems to have their own set of symptoms. Mine were fairly typical: it is not a pleasant thing to have, but not worse than the flu. It lasted just under a week, but I am now very much on the mend.
It is well known that malaria is a dangerous condition. Last year it killed 438 000 people worldwide, 90% of them in Africa. Big improvements in prevention have been made, and in recent years it is rare to travel to a village in Africa where people are not using mosquito nets. However, there are still plenty of misconceptions. I’ve had conversations with Africans who have advised me to:
a) “stay out of the rain, because I could catch malaria”;
b) “eat more meat, because if I don’t I will catch malaria”;
and my favourite, which occurred when speaking to a group of children who were terrified by the fact that I had caught an interesting looking moth in my hands and had come over to show it to them, they told me to:
c) “put it down immediately, moths give you malaria”.
While these are quite funny, even with all of the advances that have been made in recent decades, there is still a educational chasm that needs to be bridged in the understanding of this disease.
Interestingly, there are plenty of misconceptions back home too. I’ve spoken to many people in Britain who mistakenly believe that if you catch malaria it is “untreatable” and think that “it stays with you for life”. Neither of these things is true.
Some of my own misconceptions were corrected when we first arrived here. I discovered that we were the only expats (out of around six) taking anti-malaria prophylactics (i.e. medicines that help prevent malaria).
These people are not being reckless, they just know something that I didn’t. Despite what I was told in my doctor’s surgery and in various travel health clinics before I left, if you do catch malaria there is a quick and effective cure available.
It is possible that I was just badly informed, but I’m fairly sure that this is not common knowledge in the West.
There are a number of brands available, you take a course of tablets and in three days your malaria is gone. Malaria is now rarely a dangerous disease if it is diagnosed and treated early. Indeed, I’ve heard that when you live here for a while, you get so good at recognising the early symptoms, that if you then take the medication quickly, having malaria is no worse than catching a heavy cold. The drugs kill the parasite, remove it completely from your body and put a stop to the symptoms indefinitely (i.e. no mysterious fevers years later etc.). With all preventative drugs having side effects and a limit on how long you can use them, these treatment drugs provide a good alternative strategy.
Of course you need enough money to buy the treatment. You also need to have a sufficient level of education, self-awareness and understanding of your own health to recognise the symptoms early and take the tablets. These are often not true for local people, which is why it is still one of the biggest killers on the continent.
That I can just pop a handful of pills for a couple of days and survive, while 30km down the road there are people who, simply due to a lack of education and affordable healthcare, are suffering a long, drawn-out and incredibly painful death, from exactly the same medical condition, is one of those stark, hard-to-come-to-terms-with realities of living in Africa.