Call it a case of the cure being almost as bad as the disease. Anyone visiting a tropical country knows that before you head south, you must first head to your doctor. Anyone visiting the tropics without getting a six-pack of vaccines and preventives beforehand is only inviting a wide range of ailments to turn his or her body into a parasite playground.
Most of the procedures are quick and easy, if not cheap. There’s a milky drink for cholera and jabs against yellow fever, rabies, diphtheria, tetanus, typhoid, polio, two types of hepatitis and several forms of influenza that will keep the illnesses away for up to 10 years.
Malaria, however, has no cure and no vaccine. The only way to guard against the mosquito-borne sickness is to pop a frequent and regular dose of a pill that contains a preventive medicine. You have to start taking them weeks before entering a malaria-infested area and for weeks after leaving. What’s unfortunate is that they often provoke side-effects that some describe as worse than actually getting malaria itself: effects that include headaches, paranoia, hallucinations and vivid nightmares. Or “ … unexplained anxiety, depression, restlessness or irritability, or confusion …” as the medicine box says, describing those feelings as “… possible signs of more serious mental problems.”
Fine, but I could explain most of what was happening to me. The daily headaches and progressively more frequent migraines I blamed on the hot climate and thick pollution — after four days in Mexico City, for example, I was coughing like a two-pack-a-day smoker. The depression I put down to a combination of the headaches, a worry about finances and a fatigue brought on by long days and nights on overcrowded and overheated buses.
My growing paranoia (and, yes, irritability) seemed to me obviously caused by the often hourly sight of machine guns, shot guns, pistols and rifles in the hands of dozens of soldiers, police and private military. Also, the constant need to regard everyone as a possible thief or attacker, and every place as a likely ambush site, is exhausting.
It took a psychological crash to bring me to my senses. I finally knew something was unusually wrong when the nightmares started.
Just as I’d been warned (and as I’d foolishly forgotten) the anti-malaria pills sparked vivid dreams that resemble hallucinations, becoming frighteningly real but still too appalling and outlandish to believe. In one nightmare, I remember sitting and sweating on a dark and noisy terrace, like the one at the Panama City backpacker’s hostel that housed me for a few days in early May. There was a once-cold bottle of beer, almost empty, standing on a table beside a small flickering screen. Every few minutes a rotating fan washed humid air in through open, but barred-up windows.
In the dream, everyone on the terrace was happy, but the little screen kept spewing impossibly frightening things and repeating them over and over again: something about Canada’s worst prime minister ever, an effortless liar, an abuser of power, a waster of money on monumental scales, a man who uses character assassination as his primary political tool, somehow winning unfettered control over the Canadian Parliament; something about a majority government emerging with less than 40 per cent of the vote and the country being doomed to four or more years of Reform-Conservative rule.
Worst nightmare ever.
The box told me to stop taking the pills, but warned me: “If you can’t get another medicine, leave the malaria area.”
Being too paranoid to visit a doctor for a new prescription and too depressed to ride any more buses over any more borders, a quick flight to Miami seemed the best option.
I decided also that a good treatment to prevent the nightmares was to not feed them, so I’ve avoided reading, or watching, or listening to any news from or about Canada for the past number of weeks.
I’m sure all will be well. Once the side-effects wear off and I get back across the northern U.S. boundary, I’m confident the bad dreams will stop and I’ll be able to get on with my life once again.
Michael Johansen is a writer who usually lives in Labrador.