Last Updated on April 21, 2023 by Ellen
(Note: in the year Ellen had this infection, dozens of people in Tulum suffered from Chikungunya – a mosquito virus.)
Incredible chills shook me so violently I must’ve looked like I was transforming into one of the scary zombies from ’28 Days Later.’ But there was no one in the room to see – just me. Alone. In a foreign country and sick. Really sick.
The chills turned into a fever and joint and muscle pain so intense I was absolutely certain there was a bad virus running it course through my weakened body. It hurt to move my eyes, my neck, my head. My fingers were starting to swell. My elbows were puffy. My eyes were red. Like those fast zombies… but there was nothing fast about me.
My normal body temperature normally is lower than average, so a fever greater than 102 is a really big deal for me. I literally cannot remember the last time I had a 102.6 fever.
So what got me? Was this malaria, the bacterial scourge that infects millions of people each year?
Or did I fall victim to one of the viral outbreaks suddenly exploding in popularity in this part of the world? Maybe it’s the dreaded dengue virus so many people in Tulum talk about? (I know two people here who have had dengue.) Or, was it the odd-sounding Chikungunya fever, which only appeared around here in the last couple of years? Then there also is the relatively new Zika virus, which showed up only last year? Zika appears to be causing birth defects in babies’ heads in Brazil, and the country has asked for help from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
I wouldn’t know right away. That first full day after the fever and aches developed was wasted to sleep and a blur of inactivity after I somehow managed to stumble into a doctor’s office a few blocks away.
She declared I was stricken with Chikungunya Fever. Said she sees this all the time here. This is definitely what I have, she said. She prescribed a few drugs to alleviate my fever and inflammation and swelling.
The rest of the day was lost. It was the day after Thanksgiving. When I wasn’t sleeping, I just sat and stared and half-thought and half-daydreamed. It hurt too much to do much else.
On Saturday, I managed to get enough strength together to walk to the lab to give blood. I was tested for Chikungunya and Dengue. Results wouldn’t be back until Monday.
So I slept. I’ve never been more exhausted in my life. It was perplexing. What if I had to go to work, like the Mexicans? There was no way I’d have enough strength. I counted my blessings, and slept clutching my kindle, which I read in spurts when I could stay awake long enough.
Monday the results were negative for both. Huh?
Then I started googling for false negatives, and it turns out the CDC recommends testing for Chikungunya after the first week of fever, because it takes awhile for antibodies to show up on most tests. So I’d wait and get another test.
Monday night and Tuesday morning came some tummy trouble, and that’s when the rash started. The rash had been very faint, but it grew. So did the swelling of my hands, and the feeling that a million ants were crawling under my skin stabbing me with microscopic daggers. Also. Still. So. Tired.
On Wednesday tummy trouble subsided, but now came the itching. The most annoying, intense itchy sensations I’ve ever felt in my life. It would have drove me crazy. If I wasn’t so dang tired.
Mosquitoes have always bitten me and I’ve always had them swell up and itch. This new kind of itching just does not compare. This was so intense I cried a little from frustration. And well, ok, a little fear.
The rash is a little easier to see where my skin isn’t so tan. I didn’t get it as bad as some people do. And some people don’t even get a rash.
The skin on my palms was really rough to the touch. My palms were hot and raw all on their own, without so much as one scratch from me. Even though I wanted to roughly pet concrete to alleviate my suffering, I didn’t. My fingers were like sausages. I had to take off my wedding band.
Thursday was the same, with more itching, swelling and rash. Still exhausted – but it comes in waves. I’ll be a little peppy for an hour, then ready to lay down on the floor if I had to.
I had another blood test at 9 am at the same lab as the first time, but this time I only opted to test for Chikungunya not Dengue. There’s something about knowing, scientifically knowing, exactly what it is I have that seems really appealing. Even though the doctor gave me a clinical diagnosis, I wanted clear results from blood work. The results were in at 5pm. Negative!
I’m not sure what to say. I am sure there is a virus in me that is causing these awful symptoms. So much for knowing definitively.
Chikungunya has been around in India longer than this part of the world, and I found some doctors who say testing is not reliable for up to 30% of patients. Furthermore, they claim it’s best to test a few weeks after the onset of fever. My tests were on days two and eight. I know myself well enough to know, I’ll get another test in another week. Maybe I’ll use a different lab.
In the grand scheme of things, it’s not that bad. I’m not in need of hospitalization. I’m not pregnant. Yes, I’m alone, and yes, a little scared about what the hell is going on with my body. But overall, I’m very healthy and will recover from this. Eventually. Bonus – if my husband gets this – I will know how to help him through it. I also will be able to empathize with anyone who has it. Hopefully, I won’t be one of the people with joint pain that lasts a couple of years.
Meantime, I’m so lucky I have the money for medicine to alleviate the symptoms and money to have testing done, and enough money so I don’t have to go to ‘work’ today.
I have more respect for the town’s efforts against pestilence. When the mosquito spraying truck makes its rounds in Tulum, some of us dive into the nearest building and slam the door and close the windows – if there’s a door and windows to close. Other people just keep going on about their business, breathing in the fumes.
There’s no set schedule for when the truck comes, that I can discern, and there is no information readily available about what chemicals they’re spraying to kill mosquito larvae.
It usually comes at night. I’m never close enough to get a clear shot of the pickup truck, the driver, and the guy with the hose in the back who points the sprayer to the sides of the roads. But the rolling ‘mist’ on the streets is evidence of its visit.
There’s a mosquito-borne disease problem in Tulum – as there is in many tropical places, all of a sudden. At least Tulum is using some of the tourist money to try to fight it.
It took me several days to type up this blog entry. Mostly because of the ridiculous stabbing pains in my hands, and I have no energy, but also because I’m still a little mentally foggy. I’m not sure when I’ll get to the beach, but I miss it. The last time I was there was one week ago today, on Thanksgiving. I remember the ride back to town on my bike, thinking about the dull ache above my knees and in my hands, thinking ‘that’s odd, I wonder why I’m a little achy.’
While I’ve been laid up the last week, I read a great piece by a travel writer who realized, through dengue, how limited empathy can be by us privileged westerners. I also read several articles that dance around the fact that westerners are losing the edge on keeping these kinds of tropical diseases away from their borders, as the climate heats up and the earth continues to change.
In the end, we’re all human on the same planet and we’re all in this together.
As I write this right now, there is a baby screaming at the top of his or her lungs. I hope the baby doesn’t have what I have, or worse, and I wish there was a way to comfort him or her.
Update: A few years later, while at a travel clinic in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I was tested for dengue. Results were negative, so the Mexican doc must’ve been right – I likely had Chikungunya.