*Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, nurse, or health care worker – the highest level of education I have in this field is high school biology class.*
There are some things you can’t know for sure until you experience them for yourself. Before I went to Haiti I started hearing about the chikungunya outbreak. The reports didn’t look good – the disease is spread by mosquitoes, and there’s no way you can avoid those during the rainy season. I knew I had to try though: the diagnosis is five days of crippling pain, which didn’t sound enjoyable, and would put a halt to whatever project I happened to be working on when I got sick. So, I took precautions: I bought a bed net and military-grade mosquito repellent from Amazon. I wore pants and long-sleeved shirts, all treated with permethrin.
I have the resources to do all that to take care of myself. The average Haitian doesn’t, so everyone gets sick. “Shikoun,” as it’s called, comes up a lot in conversations here. People know it’s just a matter of time before they get sick too if they haven’t gotten it already. Just today, I was unable to meet with somebody because they had it. Last week at a community meeting, two thirds of the members were missing – 100 people couldn’t show up because they or their family members were sick.
During that same meeting, I started running a bit of a fever myself. The aches just felt like standard fever aches, not like my bones were breaking, so I assumed it wasn’t chikungunya. I went back to camp, took some acetaminophen, and went to bed. The next day, I continued resting and my fever went away, and by Day 3 I was completely better, if a little weak.
Then, a few days after recovering, I woke up one morning with my hands tingling. There were red, blotchy dots on my palms, arms, and legs. I felt fine and was wracking my brain trying to figure out what I’d eaten that I might be allergic to, until someone mentioned they’d experienced the same thing after catching chikungunya.
Sure enough, the rash is one sign. The most common symptom, of course, is arthritic joint pain, which I didn’t have. As you see, I was also not sick for very long – instead of 5 days in bed, I only really spent one. This all lines up with what Haitians have told me: “I only had it for two days” “It’s not bad if you take medication.”
Of course, I didn’t believe everyone at first because I thought maybe they’d had a different sickness and were just calling it chikungunya because that’s what’s going around. “After all,” I told people, “it’s not like normal diseases go away just because this new one is here. You probably got one of the old ones and misdiagnosed it.” But I’m living proof that actually, it can affect people differently. I’m just really glad that in my case, things weren’t very serious.
Okay, I’m healthy now and all, but what’s this mean for Haiti? I guess in the end it’s just important to keep things in perspective. Yes, it’s bad when half a village is lying in bed with fever, and I’m sure the very old and very young are at risk. But for most Haitians, this is not something they really worry about: you get sick, but then you get well again. It’s new on the scene, so people are devoting a lot of attention to it (remember the swine flu scare in America?), but I’m starting to think I was a little silly to worry so much, just because the symptoms aren’t as bad as I thought they’d be. I know, I know, better to be safe…anyway, I can’t catch it twice, so excuse me while I hack the legs off those protectively-long jeans and finally let my body breathe.