We had a great comment from Jen this week on the blog, who asked:
“are scary illnesses incredibly common in Africa?”
The answer to your question, Jen, is yes. The “standard” African illnesses in a big part of the continent (that’s tropical, at least) are no joke to anyone used to the winter flu being the scariest bug out there!
There’s a lot us fragile whiteys can do ahead of time to protect ourselves... including getting a LOT of vaccinations! Yellow Fever is an especially noxious disease but you can be easily vaccinated for that one, and, in fact, in many African countries it’s a necessary vaccination to have in order to enter the country at all!
Adam and I got a host of vaccinations before coming, including Yellow Fever, Meningitis, Typhoid, Hepatitis A & B, Measles, Mumps, Polio, Rubella and Tetanus and I’ve been vaccinated against Rabies and Cholera as well. While coming to an African country doesn’t mean you’re going to get all these diseases, treatments are hard to come by in the field, and especially while working with chimpanzees, it’s important to be vaccinated against potentially zoonotic diseases.
Preventative malaria drugs are readily available in the United States, but they have their own caveats. If you’re planning on spending a LONG period of time in Africa (1 year+) they can lose their efficacy and may even mask the symptoms of malaria, making it harder to diagnose when you’ve got it!
They’re also expensive -- Malarone (my favorite of the options) costs $1 a pill.
And, they often have a host of side effects. Doxycycline, mandated last I heard by the US Peace Corps, seems to have made a LOT of my Peace Corps friends go bald - men and women alike.
And, of course, I’ve railed against it before - Larium - which makes people go crazy, forever.
I don’t mean to scare you, though I’ve probably already succeeded. Adam and I aren’t taking malaria preventative drugs right now, and sure, we got malaria, but we bought over the counter cures from the pharmacy here which did the trick just fine!
I should also mention that I’ve been in and out of Africa for the last 6 years extensively and I had never gotten malaria until this current visit. I think certain regions are just more malaria-prone! Poor Cleve had malaria here 40 times!
There are some diseases here which scare even me, like Filaria, which is not well understood and has a whole HOST of side effects, the least of which is joint stiffness and the worst of which include things like River Blindness and ELEPHANTITIS! (Adam finds this one funny, though)
Africa is also the continent of HIV and Tuberculosis, neither of which have a vaccination, and who ravage through here nearly unchecked, and do a terrible job of exacerbating the other!
Yes, indeed, disease-wise, people here have it tough, but with substandard medical care and indiscriminate pharmacies they plod along just fine. And so do we, overall!
If living and working here were not worth every puke and such, we’d definitely leave! There are aspects to being here that trump any sort of disease discomfort for sure!
I hope this answers your question, and doesn’t send you running AWAY from field work, but it’s definitely part of the job and good to know ahead of time!