About a week ago, I read a news story talking about West Nile virus in the United States. Apparently, the West Nile virus has been particularly virulent this year. I congratulated myself for being here, in Costa Rica while the U.S. is stricken with an awful plague of West Nile (at least this is how new reports made it sound). But then, a few days ago, I read about the outbreak of dengue fever here in Costa Rica.
Dengue is not a fun disease, but a person can live through it. It starts suddenly, about 7 days after you’re bitten by an infected mosquito of the Aedes aegypti variety. The stricken individual first develops a really high fever of about 104 to 105 degrees. A high fever when you’re living in the tropics is really the only symptom you need to tell you to go to the doctor. As with many other diseases involving high fever, Dengue cannot be cured, but the symptoms can often be kept under control with the right medical treatment.
Two to five days after the fever starts, the infected individual develops a rash that covers most of the body. Later, the poor soul develops another rash that looks like the measles. Needless to say, the skin is sensitive and victims of dengue are uncomfortable. They feel tired, achy, nauseated, and have swollen lymph nodes. It’s not the kind of disease you’d want to catch on vacation in Costa Rica. Recovery from it takes some time. I’d be inclined to freak out a bit about dengue fever in Alajuela, but if I went back home I’d have to worry about West Nile which is just as bad.
After John caught cyclosporiasis in Morocco, I read the CDC Yellow Book (a must-have for all travelers). Although I had heard of malaria and dengue fever and other mosquito-borne disease, I had never really thought about them. I had never considered them relevant to my travels. In other words, I had been in denial about these diseases. My interest in diseases that people catch while traveling and creative treatment options was sparked by John’s bout of cyclosporiasis. I had brought along Grapefruit Seed Extract on that trip, but I was afraid to use it on him, thinking perhaps it would make things worse (because Grapefruit Seed Extract can negatively affect the intestinal flora that keeps the intestines healthy a free of pathogens with long-term use). I found out later that it might have helped.
Prophylactic malarial treatments often make people feel sick and they stop taking them. Lydian, for example has been taking doxycycline every day. When she takes the pills, they make her feel nauseated which makes her not want to take them anymore. But herbs are different and sometimes even more effective against things like malaria or dengue fever. They aren’t as heavily regulated and therefore aren’t standardized and sometimes aren’t as reliable as antiobiotics. But for a disease like dengue fever where there are no alternatives, an herbal treatment or prophylactic is worth trying.
On this trip we brought along a stash of neem, derived from a tree, to help prevent malaria and dengue fever. There aren’t very many dengue fever prophylactic medications, but neem has shown some promise. I was excited when we were in La Fortuna because I got to actually see a real neem tree. I’d looked online for images of a neem tree, but couldn’t find anything.
Neem fascinates me because the oil can be used to repel mosquitos (we put some in our liquid soap that we use every morning here) and when properly prepared (don’t take the neem oil), it can also apparently be taken internally to prevent dengue and malaria. It’s something that I would recommend people look into before traveling to any tropical climate. The pathogens that cause malaria and dengue aren’t able to develop resistance to Neem and other herbal treatments the way that they do synthetically produced pharmaceuticals because herbs are chemically much more complex.
When I heard about dengue fever in Costa Rica, I was glad to have three bottles of Neem pills on hand. I wish I had more, but we have enough to take one pill per day. We’ll see what happens, but it makes me feel better anyway, to know that we have something to use to hopefully protect us from dengue because the pharmaceutical options are lacking with this disease.