How I almost died of dengue fever in Thailand

I’ve been hesitating for a long time, before I decided to share this story with you. All in all, I think this is my obligation to say about the dark sides of travelling as much as the bright sides. This time I’m doing this mostly because I feel that many of you have never heard about a dengue fever. Lately, I had a dozen conversations with people who travel or want to travel. Only three people knew something about the dengue fever. Three! And that’s it. I was absolutely terrified how much ignorance and lack of knowledge we have as travellers. Most of the people I spoke with had the attitude like ‘Tropical illness? No… I just go there for two weeks’ or ‘Mosquitos never bite me, so I’ll be fine’. Really? In order to get their attention, I had to start sharing my story with the details. However, I still had a feeling that I need to do something, talk about or write about my experience to warn others. We have so many perfect, beautiful blogs and so little provide a useful knowledge and education.

I’m aware that this kind of post in uncomfortable to read and it’s better to pretend that nothing bad can happen. But this time it’s a matter of your health. So try to last until the end and learn from my very awful experience. You really don’t want to be in my shoes and I would never wish anybody to face what I had. I realized that my fellow travelers don’t want to share this kind of stories. They usually have an excuse like ‘travels are not always perfect, you are sick many times, sometimes very badly, but it’s not a topic for now’. What do you mean it’s not for now?! It’s now or never is case of our health and safety. How can we learn and educate each other if we do not talk about those issues?

There are many tropical diseases that we can control, at least to some extend. We can vaccinate, wash hands, don’t drink tap water, etc. The problem is when the sicknesses are hard to control, like those caused by insects. We know quite a lot about malaria and at least there are some medicines to treat it. If you get infected with dengue, there will be no magical pills, which will cure you. The only one thing we can do is to be aware and have knowledge.

Let’s start with explaining what a dengue fever actually is.

Dengue is a mosquito-borne viral disease that has rapidly spread in many regions around the world. It is mostly present in Asian and Latin American countries. It has become a leading cause of hospitalization and death among children and adults in these regions. Dengue is widespread throughout the tropics, with local variations in risk influenced by rainfall, temperature and unplanned rapid urbanization. There are 4 distinct, but closely related, serotypes of the virus that cause dengue (DEN-1, DEN-2, DEN-3 and DEN-4). Recovery from infection by one provides lifelong immunity against that particular serotype. However, a cross-immunity to the other serotypes after recovery is only partial and temporary. Subsequent infections by other serotypes increase the risk of developing a severe dengue. The incidence of dengue has grown dramatically around the world in recent decades.

The recent estimate indicates 400 million dengue infections per year. Dengue fever is a severe, flu-like illness that affects infants, young children and adults, but seldom causes death.

I was infected in Thailand. I’ve been there for a few months, using repellents (I guess that not enough), and everything was ok until one day. The mosquitos bit me, but I didn’t think about it much. It was hard to imagine that something can get wrong when everything around is so beautiful and the sun is shinning, right? I remember that one day I wasn’t feeling good. Perhaps a little dizzy, but I thought that it’s a beginning of flue, which one can easily get while travelling. I had a plan to stay in Laos for several days and I didn’t want to cancel my trip. So I went there and it was the worst decision I could have made. As I realized later, it wasn’t a flue, but a dengue fever and I landed up in an undeveloped country with a poor medical care. Right after I arrived to the hotel in Vientiane, my fever jumped to more than 40 Celcius degrees . I don’t really remember if I had a fever like this in my adult life.

It is said, that dengue should be suspected when a high fever (40°C/104°F) is accompanied by two of the following symptoms: severe headache, pain behind the eyes, muscle and joint pains, nausea, vomiting, swollen glands or rash. Symptoms usually last for 2–7 days, after an incubation period of 4–10 days. The latter begins after the bite from an infected mosquito.

I had all of the symptoms, like I was a perfect example from the medical book. I also started to see badly and all of the symptoms emerged in less than two hours. I was lucky not to be alone at that time. My fiancé literally took me to the hospital, because I wasn’t able to stand on my legs. It wasn’t easy though, we were looking for a hospital for 40 minutes. There was a huge communication barrier in Laos and all the tuc-tuc drivers didn’t understand where we wanted to go. When we finally found a Laotian hospital it turned out that they couldn’t treat me because I was a foreigner. Finally, after another 20 minutes we found a French hospital for foreigners. The doctor gave me antipyretic medicine intravenously. I spent a few hours in the hospital. Than I decided that I’m coming back to the hotel, because I hate hospitals. Plus the doctor told me there is nothing he can do as long as I don’t have other symptoms like severe bleeding. I came back with a recommendation of taking Apap, hydrating a lot and wait.

Severe dengue may potentially end up with deadly complication due to plasma leaking, fluid accumulation, respiratory distress or organ impairment. Warning signs occur 3–7 days after the first symptoms emerge; in conjunction with a decrease in temperature (below 38°C/100°F). The warning signs include: severe abdominal pain, persistent vomiting, rapid breathing, bleeding gums, fatigue, restlessness and blood in vomit. The next 24–48 hours of the critical stage can be lethal; a proper medical care is required to avoid complications and risk of death. I don’t remember the next two weeks after my visit in the hospital. I couldn’t stand up from the hotel bed by myself. I didn’t know which day it was, for how long was I asleep, etc. Only sometimes I had a thought that I will never get out of Laos.

In fact, I was super-lucky that I avoided half of the standard symptoms. But it could be worse. After 2,5 week I was able to leave Laos and came back to Thailand to continue my trip.

Do you think that’s everything? It took me around three months to pull myself together and be able to have the same energy and power to train. Before this time, everything was exhausting to me. After 10 minutes of running I couldn’t breathe. After three months I lost 30% of my hair as a side effect of toxic shock for organism. Fortunately, they grow fast, so it’s ok now. Until recently, there wasn’t any medicine for dengue.

In early 2016, the first dengue vaccine, Dengvaxia (CYD-TDV) by Sanofi Pasteur, was registered in several countries for use on individuals between 9-45 years old, living in endemic areas. It’s registered among others in Mexico and Phillipines. It’s a hope for the future, but until it won’t be available in the rest of the world we need to think about prevention. At present, the main method to control or prevent the transmission of dengue virus, is to combat vector mosquitoes through: use of personal household protection (e.g. window screens), long-sleeved clothes, insecticide treated materials, coils and vaporizers.

My intention was to draw your attention to this important issue. I wanted you to think about your health and your safety when you travel. Don’t pretend to be untouchable. I was thinking about myself like this. A young, fit and healthy girl, who is an experienced traveler – nothing can happen to me. Especially is such beautiful places, where the weather is perfect. It’ s hard to admit that we are not untouchable, and the line between life and death, health and sickness is very thin. Our health is not given for granted and if we are not going to be responsible, nothing will help us. Even if we think that being a good person will safe us from all the bad things, sometimes it may not work.

I’ve received two great lessons from the experience with the dengue fever. The first one: I totally reevaluated my approach to life. I don’t think about myself as an untouchable person anymore. I realized that my life is not timeless. Cliché, you will say. Maybe, but you really need to be on the edge to understand this point. I’ve started to appreciate more what I have. Be happy with the smallest things. Seize every opportunity life gives me. Health is the most important. I take care about myself. You ask me a lot how do I find motivation to eat healthy and train. This story is the answer. I understand what does it mean to be weak and not able to move. When I was sick, I was dreaming only about running and jumping, being back to normal life. Now, when I’m ok again, how can I whine and don’t use my life fully?

The second lesson is the one I wrote about in the other post (here) – you can handle more than you think. I would never say about my organism that it could be so strong. The truth is that I didn’t have many symptoms that can occur in the dengue fever. Furthermore, after 2 weeks I was able to function again. I guess I’m stronger than I thought. Obviously this story didn’t stop me from travelling, but now I’m more attentive and responsible. My health is more important than any attraction or experience. I’ve got my lesson of appreciation and humility. Believe me, you don’t really need the same lesson. Learn from my experience and from my story.

Take care Travelers, think and remember, health is the biggest gift that we have received.

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