Unlike many travellers, Alex Beard was careful to take precautions against getting bitten by a malaria-carrying mosquito. She went to Africa armed with insect repellent, a mosquito net and antimalarial tablets. However, after several months travelling, her precautions lapsed.
“I’d been studying in Ghana for about four-and-a-half months," she says. “My best friend and I decided to travel back to England by land.
“We stopped in Burkina Faso. I’d been feeling a bit ill for a while but I just put it down to an upset stomach and feeling tired, and ignored it.
“We were in a small rural village, miles from anywhere, when I started to feel very ill. I had a stabbing pain in my side and I found it really hard to breathe. I took painkillers and didn’t tell anyone about it. I can be very stubborn. But eventually I was so weak I couldn’t even pick up a glass.”
Alex’s friend realised something was wrong. She took Alex to the village’s tiny medical centre.
“The doctor sent me off for a blood test which they did at the vet's. There I was, surrounded by pictures of sheep and goats. I thought I was losing my mind. I kept fainting.”
Back at the medical centre, the doctor told Alex she had plasmodium falciparum malaria, the most dangerous kind. But she found it very hard to understand what was being said.
“We don’t speak French so they had to tell us about seven times before we understood. Eventually they resorted to doing impressions of mosquitoes. We thought we knew the classic signs of malaria and I didn’t have them. I just couldn’t believe it.”
The doctor gave Alex a bag of pills. She had to take 15 pills every day for three days. He also gave her pills to take in case she relapsed.
As there was no hospital, all Alex could do was go back to her hostel, take the pills and hope for the best. She spent three days drifting in and out of consciousness with a high fever, unable to walk or move. Then she felt well enough to travel to the nearest city, so she could be nearer better medical facilities in case she got worse.
She rested for four days, then carried on travelling for the next three months. She suffered two relapses and took her pills, which stopped the disease again. However, when she got home, she continued to suffer.
“I was in and out of hospital having severe night sweats and speech problems. I had really bad sickness and severe stomach problems. I had to go back for regular blood tests, which didn’t show any sign of the parasites, but I was still ill. It took me about 18 months to get over it and I now have irritable bowel syndrome as a result of malaria.”
Alex says that British travellers should take malaria prevention as seriously as possible.
“When you’re somewhere for so long, malaria protection doesn’t seem too important,” she says. “I was sleeping outside my mosquito net because it was too hot and I must have missed taking some pills. I kick myself for it now.
“We are so lucky to have easy access to these antimalarials. Millions of people die from malaria in the developing world. Find out what you need and stick to your regime. It’ll only take a few seconds out of your day.”