Laurie Griffiths contracted malaria while travelling in Africa. He tells PharmaTimes his story
When and where were you diagnosed with malaria?
The symptoms started appearing when I was leaving Malawi, crossing into Zambia, but I was officially diagnosed in Zambia in August 2016. So, I went through the border crossing feeling really poorly but hoping that it was just going to pass, and that I would be ill for just a couple of days, but it continued to get worse and worse. We were in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, when I actually got taken to a health centre and was officially diagnosed.
Did you realise or think it might be malaria before you were diagnosed?
No, I was staying in a hostel and had just lost my glasses for the second time over the duration of the trip. I was trying to power through the feeling, so went for an eye test and to get a new pair of glasses. In the eye test I felt so horrible and it was just getting progressively worse, and I remember when the woman was trialling the different lenses on my eyes she kept asking, “Is this any clearer?” with each lens, and I just kept saying “no”, until she said, “well one of them has to work!”. At which point I realised I was too ill to do the test and had to leave, so I returned to the hostel and collapsed on the sofa, where someone who worked there brought me some water and tried to get me to eat. Her shift was ending and just before she left she turned to me and said, “I think you have malaria, by the way!” In a way it gave me a sense of relief, because I knew what was actually going on and that I definitely needed to go get it sorted.
Were you taking any preventative medication when you contracted it – if so, what?
I only planned on going to Tanzania for three months, which I did initially, and throughout that time I was taking malaria tablets called doxycycline. Obviously I did not get malaria for the full three months I was taking them, but then we decided to stay there for a bit longer and my tablets had run out. I just didn’t buy more. Looking back I think on some level we stupidly thought that we were integrated enough to have built up some kind of immunity!
What were your symptoms, both mental and physical?
Fever was probably the biggest one. I was around 40 degrees and shivering, I felt really cold. Just a lot of weakness and all my body parts ached, as well as being super nauseous. Mentally, there was a lot of confusion; it was better in the day time when I had someone to talk to, but at night it was very difficult to sleep and my thoughts just kept going round and round like a washing machine. I was just incredibly confused, and I remember one night I was wandering about trying to find someone to talk to, because I just really needed to be out of my head.
How long were you in hospital for?
It was around three nights, because once it was diagnosed and they hooked me up to a drip it only took a few days for the worst of the symptoms to subside.
What was the recovery process?
I guess I would describe it as exponential. On the first night and the second day I didn’t feel any better, but then on the third day I felt slightly better and by the last day I was significantly better. So, slow initially, but quickly towards the end.
What were you told about your prognosis at the time?
There was a huge language barrier, and on the first day I was so ill I wasn’t thinking straight, taking anything in or even making any sense. So I don’t remember much about that, but I do remember being in the waiting room after the receptionist had told me to take a seat and wait, and then going back up to the desk and saying “I don’t want to make a fuss, but I think I’m going to die – is there any way you could hurry up?”. They actually did, believe it or not, and there was a lot of relief when I was finally on a bed in the capable hands of a doctor, with a drip in my arm.
How did you/your family cope with the situation?
My mum said that it was incredibly hard having me so far away. I was travelling with a friend, and when it all happened he messaged my mum after the first night. She said as soon as she saw his name come up on her messages she just panicked, because she knew it was either Laurie’s ill, Laurie’s dead, or we had been mugged. He did tell her that it had been taken care of and that it was under control.
How would you compare the hospital experience you had in Zambia to hospitals in the UK?
It wasn’t even a full-on hospital, more a health centre. It had separate rooms for treatment and you could stay in the rooms overnight. It was really weird, too, having been used to the NHS and being in a country where they didn’t have that, and hearing them offer me three different prices of rooms.The two most expensive were private rooms, and then the cheapest I assume was a dorm, like you have in hospitals in the UK.
Do you feel like information about malaria available to the public is adequate?
It’s actually really good, if you go and tell your GP that you’re going somewhere with a high risk, they will tell you which things are recommended and what’s essential, which I think is great. That’s the main thing, just tell them where you’re going and they’ll recommend you whatever you need.
How much did you know about malaria before contracting it?
We were just told by the charity that I was volunteering with that we should take malaria pills, and so we did. I learnt about it mostly through learning about the different options of preventative pills – because they have various side effects like intense dreams, or photosensitivity. I think I knew basically that it gives you a fever, and that it can kill you. Despite that, I think that the information is all there for anyone that actively wants it, I just chose not to. If you’re going to somewhere with a high risk of malaria, the information is all online.
Has it left any lasting effect on your life?
There are no long-term symptoms, although it can come back at any point in my life apparently. It can just pop back up, and there’s nothing that I can do about that. It’s laying dormant. In terms of mental or emotional effect it’s hard to say, but it’s so intense. I genuinely thought I was going to die, which is not something you forget about quickly. I was really shaken up for a few weeks. I remember bumping in to people I had met earlier in my travels a few weeks after the event, and they asked what on earth had happened to me, because I just didn’t look right. So, semi-long term, maybe, but long-term physical symptoms not so much.
What piece of advice have you learnt from the experience that you can share?
Take the pills! It’s really not worth feeling like that.