Ten Tropical Diseases to Avoid Like the Plague – Some Coming Soon to Your Backyard Due to Climate Change:
I once visibly recoiled from a man with leprosy. My knee-jerk reaction was so strong that I jumped down six stairs to street level so as to avoid passing by him on the steps. The mix of panic and revulsion was subconscious animalistic survival instinct. I felt incredibly guilty afterward because we’re taught since childhood not to leap from lepers (or some equivalent) as it isn’t polite. However, being disgusted by disease and filth while traveling could save your life. Dr. Valerie Curtis explores the history of revulsion in her book “Don’t Look, Don’t Touch” (Oxford University Press) and theorizes that the emotion originated from the need to avoid parasites, and that disgust leads to better hygiene and health. So embrace your fear and disgust as we look at 10 tropical diseases to avoid like the plague.
Elephantiasis (lymphatic filariasis): 120 million people are currently infected in 73 countries. The disease is usually contracted during childhood and causes horrific disfigurement later in life.
How You Get It: Mosquitoes infected with the filarial parasite (roundworms) leave the larvae on your skin when they bite you. The larvae enter the skin and travel via the lymphatic vessels growing into adult worms in the lymphatic system.
Symptoms: You can get it and have no idea that you have it. Then years later, if you’re a man, your testicles can swell so massively that you have to support them in a wheelbarrow if you want to walk. Pain, disability and permanent disfigurement result regardless of gender.
Lucky Charms & Potions: One “doctor” on the ABC of Homeopathy website recommends Mercurius Sulphuricus (which he misspelled), and according to the forum, it didn’t work. It also says on the website that Mercurius Sulphuricus can be used to treat a burning anus, sore tongue tip, and sneezing from sunbeams.
Real Prevention and Treatment: According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a mass drug administration (a single dose of two medicines) needs to happen to eradicate the disease in infected areas permanently, and the goal is to end this disease globally by 2020. Avoiding getting bitten by mosquitoes when in regions where there is infection is the best defense.
Malaria: Researchers just announced that climate change will extend the reach of malaria. In Africa, one child dies each minute from malaria. Travelers can become infected in over 99 subtropical and tropical countries when bitten by an infected mosquito.
How You Get It: The mosquitoes that carry malaria are dusk-to-dawn biters. The disease is caused by parasitic protozoa delivered by the infected mosquitoes.
Symptoms: The worst symptom is death, and if you don’t die you might wish you were dead while soaking your sheets with fever sweats and pooping in your bed. Sufferers also may experience severe muscle aches and abdominal pain, vomiting, headache, seizures, coma, kidney and respiratory failure, which brings us back to death. If one survives malaria, it can remain dormant in the liver, causing future attacks for years.
Lucky Charms & Potions: Joseph Mercola, an advocate for alternative medicine, promotes the use of fresh garlic bulbs and cinnamon oil for malaria. I somehow doubt millions of people would die annually (making mosquitoes the number one killer of humans in history) if garlic bread and cinnamon buns were the solution.
Real Prevention and Treatment: There is no vaccine, but depending upon where you are going there is an appropriate preventative drug that can be prescribed, although it’s not 100% effective. If one contracts malaria, it can be treated in hospital (not always successfully) with anti-malarial drugs and antibiotic combinations. The only foolproof way not to get malaria is not to be bitten. Embrace the toxic but effective repellent DEET. Apply it to mosquito netting, clothes and exposed skin. You can refer to the CDC Malaria toolkit for more information.
Myth: Sometimes people who hail from a homeland with malaria believe they are immune for life even after immigrating to a country without malaria. However, any malaria immunity wears off within a few years.
Onchocerciasis (River Blindness): This is another parasitic disease that has been found in some parts of Latin America and 31 countries in Africa. Besides locals, adventure travelers and volunteer workers are also at risk.
How You Get It: The parasite (roundworm) is delivered by a black fly that has become infected from biting a person who is carrying the parasite. Each individual adult worm can live inside a person for up to 15 years.
Symptoms: Insanely intense itching, skin disfiguration, visual problems, blindness. The itching is so bad that workers on a plantation in Liberia used red-hot machetes on themselves to try and stop the itching. Some people even commit suicide to end the itch.
Lucky Charms & Potions: Red-hot machetes.
Real Prevention and Treatment: Once again, using DEET to avoid being bitten by insects is the best thing one can do, as there is no vaccine or preventative. River blindness is difficult to diagnose since blood tests are often inconclusive. It takes up to 20 months after being bitten for the larvae to be detected in the skin. If you become infected, ivermectin kills the adult worms.
Chikungunya: This viral disease is new to the Caribbean, can be found in areas of Europe, and is in Africa, Asia and the Indian subcontinent. The CDC reported that this disease will likely spread to the Southern USA.
How You Get It: The Aedes aegypti (yellow fever) mosquito bite. They primarily bite at dusk and dawn, but on overcast days or in shady places they will also suck your blood during the day.
Symptoms: Agonizing joint pain, high fevers, rash, leg swelling, headache and nausea. There are cases where chronic joint pain continues. It is sometimes misdiagnosed as dengue, which should also be on this list.
Lucky Charms & Potions: On health.india.com Dr. Suresh Shah says, “The best way to treat chikungunya is to have homemade sweets.”
Real Prevention and Treatment: There is no scientific medical treatment or vaccine, so it’s too bad that the patient will be too sick to enjoy the sweets. The only prevention is not to get bitten.
Schistosomiasis: According to the WHO, this parasitic disease, which causes genital lesions amongst other lesions, affects 240 million worldwide. It is found in South America, Asia and Africa.
How You Get It: Contaminated water and poor sanitation. The water is contaminated by infected freshwater snails. You can contract the parasites just from swimming in the water.
Symptoms: Genital lesions, abdominal pain, diarrhea, fever, bladder infections (eventually leading to bladder cancer in some cases), enlargement of spleen and liver, high white blood cell count, lesions forming in the brain and spine due to eggs and more.
Lucky Charms & Potions: One medical herbalist from Christchurch recommends oil of myrrh at a dose of 10mg per kilogram of body weight for three days. However, WebMD warns that doses of 2-4 grams may cause heart problems, rashes, diarrhea, and might worsen a fever.
Real Prevention and Treatment: Just one dose of praziquantel. It can be administered annually to people living in infected regions. There is no vaccine yet.
Leishmaniasis: This is a disease caused by a protozoan parasite resulting in horrendous skin ulceration. Around 12 million people worldwide are currently infected and 20,000-50,000 die annually. It is most common in South and Central America, Asia, Africa and Southern Europe. Recently, cases have been found in northern Texas. It is on the rise in Syria due to squalor.
How You Get It: The parasite is delivered by a sandfly bite and it thrives in areas with bad sanitation or where garbage is left in the streets.
Symptoms: Skin ulcers, which, depending on the form of the disease, can include mouth and nose ulceration causing permanent mutilation of throat and airways, enlargement of the spleen and liver, and death.
Lucky Charms & Potions: Forget it! Put your rabbit’s foot and cauldron away and go see a doctor.
Real Prevention and Treatments: Use bug nets sprayed or impregnated with repellent while sleeping. The drugs used and their effectiveness depends upon the region where the disease was contracted.
Trachoma: Trachoma is an eye condition and is the number one cause of infectious blindness in the world. According to the CDC, it is a hygiene-related disease caused by chlamydia trachomatis and currently infects around 84 million. It affects people mostly in Asia, Central and South America, and Africa, but also in Australia and the Middle East.
How You Get It: It is contracted from eye goo and also from flies. When an infected individual gets the discharge from their eye on towels or on their fingers, they can pass it to another person. Flies can also transmit the disease after coming in contact with an infected human’s eye secretions.
Symptoms: After five to 12 days from becoming infected, symptoms of “pink eye” or conjunctivitis are experienced, along with swelling of the lymph nodes near the ears, increase in heart rate, followed by white lumps on the inside of the upper eyelid, and later, corneal ulcers. Sometimes the eyelashes turn in and grow on the inside of the eyelid rubbing against the eye. Adult women are more likely to suffer blindness than men.
Lucky Charms & Magic Potions: Grannymed.com recommends boiling bruised flaxseeds and applying to your eyes for trachoma. I have a recipe for flaxseed cookies that I got from the Red Square Bakery that won’t cure chlamydia or trachoma either, but they taste great.
Real Prevention and Treatment: The disease is best prevented by diligent attention to hygiene and is treated by a single oral dose of azithromycin or topical tetracycline.
Yaws Disease: This one is caused by a spirochete bacterium. In the 1950s-60s the WHO almost got rid of Yaws, but it is now classified as a neglected tropical disease on the rise and is common in 14 tropical countries, including areas of Indonesia, the South Pacific Islands, Asia and Africa. There is hope to eradicate it by 2020.
How You Get It: It’s spread by coming into contact with the lesion fluid of someone who is infected.
Symptoms: Within a month to three months from infection, a painless nodule known as a “mother yaw” appears and sometimes a nearby crop of “daughter yaws.” Then months to years later, secondary and tertiary phases include: ulcers, bone and joint destruction, and tissue death.
Lucky Charms & Magic Potions: Apparently one should avoid fish sauce and “crispy-tasting fruit.” The unproven herbal “cure” reads like a curry recipe. I won’t provide the link because it would be irresponsible.
Real Prevention and Treatment: Hygiene and taking care not to come into direct contact with an individual with lesions is the best prevention. The treatment is a simple single injection of penicillin or other antibiotics.
Soil-transmitted Helminths: The CDC includes these parasites (worms) in their category of neglected tropical diseases even though worms can be contracted elsewhere in the world. They thrive in the warm wet soil of tropical destinations. Don’t underestimate the health risk.
Chagas Disease: Eight million people in Latin America are infected by this parasitic disease. It has also been found now in the U.S. but is not endemic. If left untreated, the infliction can cause death.
How You Get It: It’s delivered when infected insects called “kissing bugs” take a crap on you or your food. Unlucky candidates also get it from blood transfusions and organ transplants. These bugs like to dwell in adobe- or mud-built buildings and in palm-thatched roofs.
Symptoms: Sometimes the initial, early stage of Chagas goes unnoticed because of mild flu-like symptoms such as fever, diarrhea, headaches and swollen glands, but if a doctor is visited they’ll detect a swollen spleen and liver. The unmistakable symptom is a swollen eyelid and side of the face, but this occurs in less than half of those infected. These symptoms vanish and a person can go decades before the chronic phase arises, which can include an enlarged heart or heart failure.
Lucky Charms & Potions: Unproven herbal remedies (which they all are) for Chagas include garlic tea. Now why isn’t that garlic bread, or garlic on prawns? Why tea?
Real Prevention and Treatment: Good hygiene and proper food handling, improvements in buildings, bug spraying, bed netting and insect repellents are the best prevention. The disease is 100% curable if caught in the early stage and treated with benznidazole and nifurtimox.
Happy travels, wash your hands, and if it’s filthy and stinks you don’t have to touch it, drink it or eat it. Trust your disgust.
Kirsten Koza is an author, humorist, travel writer, and expedition leader who has experienced too many revolting travel-related illnesses. She recommends visiting your nearest travel health clinic before and after your holidays or adventures in tropical destinations.
“Don’t Look, Don’t Touch” by Dr. Valerie Curtis