How I ended up with dengue fever in Indonesia
I have been traveling now for 14 years, sometimes enjoying comfortable stays in developed countries but, much more frequently, in parts of the world where a sensible traveler should perhaps worry about the available medical facilities.
So maybe I have been lucky. I have used doctors abroad for various strange infections and other minor worries and thankfully the interesting pills or creams prescribed have always done the trick, sometimes to my complete surprise! But I have never had anything serious happen to me.
Having been flavor of the week for the local Bali mosquito population, I perhaps should have seen my next unwelcome adventure coming…
Bali is beautiful and we spent 12 great days checking out the local markets, visiting rice fields, scuba diving and of course sampling all the local food. My symptoms started with a cold and some serious food poisoning (those street vendors and tiny restaurants may have been a little too authentic), but nothing I haven’t survived before so I didn’t worry too much.
After a week I even started to feel better, well enough to travel from Bali to Java to meet up with my family in Bandung, one of the larger cities in Indonesia. But on the day we planned to leave Bandung I simply couldn’t get out of bed. I woke with a terrible fever and my body was aching all over, not the best condition to face into an 8-hour train journey.
So we decided to delay our departure by 24 hours, with me convinced a lazy day in bed would get me back on those tracks.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. With me feeling progressively worse, the friendly hotel staff ended up calling a doctor who, after a blood test, confirmed my fate: Dengue fever.
Bitten by the wrong mosquito…
Having traveled to many places where Dengue is common and having always seemed to be the one who gets bitten the most, I was determinedly philosophical: this was bound to happen at some stage so why not now?
Well OK, let’s get it over with then!
This just means a few more days in bed with a fever, right?
Unfortunately for me that was not the case. Although for most patients beating Dengue fever simply means staying hydrated and resting a lot, I quickly learned that some versions can be quite dangerous and even lethal.
It’s not the dehydration that carries the risk in these cases but internal hemorrhaging. Blood platelet (which enable your blood to clot and stop bleeding) counts can drop very quickly leading to a high risk of internal bleeding. And guess what? My platelet count wasn’t working in my favor!
Somehow though I managed to stay out of the hospital for another two days. I have to add here that I have a very irrational fear of hospitals and needles so I’m sure my “no, I don’t want to go” might have come out so aggressively that my sweet young Indonesian doctor who kept coming to my hotel room to check on me was convinced I’d attack her if she’d try to get me out of my bed.
But after two days I had to admit defeat. My blood results that morning were seriously worrying and I had never felt worse in my life. Time for the Indonesian hospital to show me what it’s got!
Well as it turns out: very friendly nurses who speak very little English, a “VIP private room” for the foreign patient and a doctor who quickly got annoyed by my Western need to know why he is doing “X” or why he is not doing “Y”. For the next four days my platelet count got worse and worse with even the nurses starting to get anxious, and then, just as quickly as I got ill, everything turned for the better. Two days of treatment later I was well enough to leave hospital and not long afterwards catch a welcome flight home.
Weeks later I am still recovering, but looking back, I realize how lucky I was. For starters, I was in a big city with decent facilities. The hotel staff were incredibly helpful from arranging a doctor to helping with translations in the hospital. The hospital itself may not have been as modern and well equipped as its Western counterparts but it was by no means bad and I was grateful I had not fallen ill in some remote village.
But most importantly, I almost always travel alone and solo traveling can be great: you learn self-reliance, make your own decisions and best of all you have the freedom to do whatever you want and go wherever you like. Not so great though when you are seriously ill and, even though it is tough to admit, all you want is someone to take care of you. So how lucky was I to have my parents with me (for the first time since my childhood vacations) right as this happened? My father who took care of all the hospital formalities and my mother who was in the hospital with me almost the entire time; helping me to the bathroom when I could hardly walk, readjusting my pillows, bringing me decent food when I couldn’t stomach the hospital food anymore. Yes, quite lucky I have been! 🙂
My feeling of good fortune increased after I got back home and met other veterans of exotic hospital adventures: I thankfully avoided the multi-legged creatures that kept some patients company, my hospital had reliable electricity and as far as I could tell no part of it was in imminent danger of collapse. In hindsight, I really do feel I got away with it lightly. Much worse things could have happened during all my years of traveling. I’ve been in some crazy situations (as many travelers have) and am still here safe and sound!
Tips from a now slightly wiser traveler:
Use mosquito repellent all the time!
The mosquitoes who spread dengue prefer to bite during the day. So don’t think, like I did, you can get away with just spraying mosquito repellent around sundown. Use it throughout the day and use good quality products.
I highly recommend Sawyer’s insect repellent. Their Picaridin insect repellent is much nicer to use than the products containing DEET that most people are used to. Although many travelers don’t seem to be familiar with it yet, studies have long shown Picaridin to be as effective as DEET in repelling mosquitoes (including the species which transmits the Zika Virus, Yellow Fever, and Dengue Fever). Unlike DEET, however, Picaridin is effective against flies as well, is non-greasy, and does not dissolve plastics or other synthetics. Plus it doesn’t have the strong smell the DEET based repellents have. The permethrin insect repellent is also a useful option to use in combination with a topical insect repellent since it can be applied to a variety of fabrics and lasts 6 weeks.
For more information about Picaridin and Sawyer’s insect repellent go to sawyer.com/zika
Make sure you have good health and travel insurance
For years my dedication to “low budget traveling” went so far that I never even had travel insurance. But believe me, if you are stuck in a hospital bed and even opening your eyes hurts, you really don’t want to worry about how to pay for the next night in the hospital or for the unexpected changes to your travel plans!
What is Dengue fever?
Dengue fever is a mosquito-borne infection characterized by severe headaches, muscle aches, fever and malaise. Your body can hurt so badly that it can take over 15 minutes just to put your clothes on in the morning.
The infection causes a severe flu-like illness (dengue fever) and sometimes a potentially lethal complication called dengue haemorrhagic fever, which I was unfortunate enough to end up with.
Global incidence of dengue has grown dramatically in recent decades so there is definitely reason not to underestimate it!
The mosquito lives in temperate climates: Latin America, Asia, India, Africa and the Pacific Islands.
For more information about dengue fever check out these websites: