My family has been back in the US since mid-April when we evacuated from Burundi during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic. A few weeks ago I started feeling a little run down, and I noticed I was running a low grade fever, around 100.3. I just felt completely worn out. The next day, I was tested for COVID-19, but the test came back negative.
The fever continued, and the fatigue gradually worsened. By Thursday I could hardly get out of bed and could hardly eat. I was alternating between ibuprofen, tylenol, and sleep. I was trying to stay hydrated. I was having headaches, back pain and muscle aches. In the middle of a COVID pandemic, I assumed I had gotten a false negative result, and I went back to the hospital for a recheck. This second test also came back negative.
I thought, “If I’m not turning the corner by Monday, I will have to go in to the hospital and get this checked out.” Far from turning the corner, the fever just kept getting worse, gradually increasing over the course of the week from 100.9, 101.4, 101.8, up to 102.5. Some days I couldn’t get the fever to break at all, and I would just shake with chills for hours. Other times, when the fever would break for a few hours, large drops of sweat would break out on my face and arms, and I would soak the sheets in sweat.
Monday morning came, (now day 10 of fever) and I could tell I wasn’t over whatever ailment I had. So I started getting ready to go to the emergency room. As I thought about what questions they would ask me, I briefly considered that there is a species of malaria that can lie dormant in the liver and then relapse months or even years later. I thought this highly unlikely, but tucked it away to mention it to the ER doctor as part of the differential diagnosis for this undifferentiated fever for over a week.
In the ER, they drew some blood and sent it off to the lab, and a little while later the ER doc came in to see me. I recognized him from when I was a resident and on faculty in this hospital. He greeted me, listened to my heart and lungs, and we discussed what might be the cause of my illness. We discussed COVID, aseptic meningitis, and other possibilities. As he was beginning to leave, I told him that I knew it was really rare, but since I spend most of my time in Africa, should we consider a relapse of the dormant stage of malaria. He scratched his chin and said, yes, that possibility exists, and we could run some labs to look for that. Before he left the room, the nurse poked his head in and said, “The lab is on the phone, they are looking at your CBC, and they want to know if you have recently been out of the country.”
“Yes,” I said, and he disappeared again back to the nurse’s station. Momentarily, he popped back in and asked, “...Exactly where have you traveled? The ER doc and I exchanged a knowing glance. Apparently, the lab saw some “inclusion bodies” on the CBC and suspected it might be malaria, and they wanted to order a thick and thin smear to confirm.
No less than five lab techs came up from the lab to practice preparing a thick and thin malaria smear, something they rarely get the chance to do in Springfield, Missouri. A few fingersticks later and I was leaving the ER with an anti-malarial prescription and follow-up with the infectious disease doctor later that week.
After a day or two the fevers began subsiding. The smears, which were sent to the CDC for confirmation, returned with a diagnosis of Plasmodium vivax, one of the types of malaria that can cause the dormant stage in the liver. After finishing the first medicine, I have to take another medicine, primaquine, to clear the liver or any remaining “hypnozoites” (from the Greek which means “sleeping animal”).
|A few images from my malaria smear|
What have I learned from this experience? Well, for one thing, I learned that although rare, it is possible to develop malaria after you’ve been out of an endemic zone for longer than 6 months. Let this bizarre case be a warning to any international travelers to remember to keep malaria in your differential even months or years after you have left an endemic area.
I also learned how absolutely miserable it feels to be sick with malaria -- and I didn’t even have “severe” falciparum malaria. I have a new respect and empathy for the hundreds and thousands of patients we treat for malaria at Kibuye Hope Hospital. I only had a brief experience with this illness and I was blessed with immediate access to care. But my mind wanders to the 8,000,000 Burundians who were diagnosed with malaria last year, and how many ended up having severe complications, like seizures, coma, respiratory distress, severe anemia, renal failure, and even death. I also have access to primaquine which will treat the hypnozoites, but what about those who will experience recurrences and relapses in Burundi because medicines like primaquine aren't available?
I’m thankful for this brief opportunity to share this illness with the people I serve in Burundi. It highlights that although we have come a long way to bring healthcare and education to this remote part of Africa, we still have a long way to go.
"And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up." Galatians 6:9