The time I caught an exotic disease

BEN GROUNDWATER
Last updated 05:00 25/10/2012
travel hypochondria
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TRAVELLER'S HYPOCHONDRIA: You never get sick at home, but as soon as you're overseas, you're convinced you've contracted a deadly disease.

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The boys were convinced it was a hangover, but I'd never had a hangover like this before. It was definitely malaria.

I felt sick to my bones. I could feel chills running through me. Waves of nausea threatened to engulf me. I had a fever – or maybe I didn't, but it felt like I had a fever.

All I could do was lie on the couch and hope it went away. Fast. Or I was going to need medical attention.

"I think it's malaria," I moaned, shivering. "You guys are going to have to take me to the hospital."

The two of them laughed. "It's not malaria. Harden up."

It was definitely malaria. I'd been in Ethiopia five days now, which was enough time for a mosquito to bite me and inject the disease and for those malarial cells to gather like a waiting army and then attack my unsuspecting system. I could almost feel it happening as the nausea rose and fell.

But the boys were having none of it. We were supposed to be heading out of Addis Ababa today, into the countryside to a women's shelter where an Australian lady ran a kiosk with the best meat pies this side of the Indian Ocean. There was no way my two expat hosts were going to let a little bout of malaria/hangoveritis interrupt their plan.

So we piled into their battered 4WD, me lying in the back loudly and pointedly dying, the other two in the front talking about the pies. "I'm gunna order two," I could hear someone saying. "I'm gunna smash the first one, then savour the second one."

"I've got malaria," I groaned. "Take me to a friggin' hospital."

The two up the front just laughed as our car bumped through Addis's potholed streets. I clutched my head and worried. I mean, it's true, I'd drunk a few beers the night before. Maybe more than a few. But you don't get hangovers like this. They don't feel like this.

It was definitely malaria.

I should point out, here, that I'm prone to this sort of thing. Not contracting exotic diseases, but believing that I have. I find that the more frightening a country's medical facilities are, the more I'm convinced I'll need to use them.

You could call it "traveller's hypochondria", because I never get sick at home. I'd basically need an arm to fall off before I'd think about visiting a doctor. But get me into a Third World country and all of a sudden I'm convinced I'm in need of attention.

I've got cholera, I've got gastritis, I've got hepatitis, I've got diseases that don't even have names yet. I'm not sure if my eyes are working properly. I might need attention for the headaches I'm getting. Or, at least, the one I had yesterday.

I've been tested for malaria before, in Uganda. Turned out it was just a light cold.

In Brazil I had a lump on my arm that I was sure was a spider bite, or maybe even a colony of spiders nesting in my skin. That can totally happen. Although not this time, because a few hours later the lump was gone.

I think all this is born of some inner panic at getting sick in a place I really don't want to get sick in. It's fine when you've got the safety net of modern medicine in the First World, but when you're in the middle of nowhere, Africa, or somewhere deep in the mountains of Peru, you get the feeling that any potential health problem would need to be detected as soon as possible and dealt with.

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That's why I'm always a little on edge. That's why I'm constantly taking stock of things, making sure I'm feeling 100 per cent, keeping an eye out for the smallest little hint of sickness – which can sometimes manifest itself in the belief that I've picked up something truly horrible when I really haven't.

I still definitely had malaria in Ethiopia. I managed to stagger out of the car and sit under a tree at the women's shelter, shivering even in the sun as the boys munched their meat pies and laughed at me. I didn't know malaria was so funny.

Gradually, however, the strangest thing started to happen. My symptoms began to abate. The headache started to clear. The chills disappeared. The waves of nausea became tiny little ripples of pain before settling into a calm pool of relative good health.

In the warm light of the afternoon I could see what my bout of malaria had been: a high-altitude hangover (Addis sits about 2400 metres above sea level, after all) of the worst kind. But a hangover, self-induced and pathetic, all the same.

The boys soon noticed my recovery. One of them smiled: "Beers tonight mate?"

Have you ever suffered from traveller's hypochondria? Or does the idea of getting sick overseas not bother you? Ever had a REAL illness while travelling? Post a comment and share your stories below.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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