I have despised mosquitoes for as long as I can remember, and when I find myself on mosquito hunting grounds at dusk, I tend to curse loudly about my sweet blood and leap about like a fool trying to get away from them.
However, the mosquitoes that plague me with itchy welts every summer on the east coast are mere pesks in comparison to their disease-carrying Central American cousins! Traveling through these Latin countries where every bite raises your chances of contracting malaria really made me think twice about complaining about scratching my US mosquito bites into scars. As if malaria’s not bad enough, there are several other mosquito-borne illnesses that you have to watch out for in the region. Dengue fever involves at least a week of fever, fatigue, and joint and muscle aches, and generally makes you feel like you’ve been hit by a train. In Playa del Carmen, two out of three of our scuba instructors nonchalantly referenced their most recent bouts with it, as if it were unlucky but not alarming, like the flu.
They weren’t the only people we met that had been felled by the mosquitoes. We met several people that had fought another, more ridiculous-sounding mosquito-borne illness: chinkungunya. (Or “chicken got ya,” as one American joked.) Even newer to the region than dengue, it results in almost the same symptoms, but typically without the fever and with worse joint pain. Signs like these were frequent reminders of the ever-present danger of mosquito-borne illnesses.
While camping in Guatemala, despite our most thorough efforts to keep the tent zipped at all times, we could hear a mosquito that had managed to sneak in. We spent the night alternating between perfectly still, slightly paranoid stakeouts searching for it and frantic attempts to oust the intruder when it revealed itself. When we finally managed to squash the latest threat, our celebrations probably woke the nearby campers.
By the time we left Central America, we had honed our tactics for avoiding the vampire insects.After we realized that we could get double-digit numbers of bites in only a few minutes, our increasing vigilance about using sprays started to pay off. We wore loose, long pants that cinched at the ankles to minimize exposed skin, and our mosquito repellent collection had doubled in size. We grew sharp at spotting and avoiding mosquito-prone areas with puddles and low vegetation, and once decided to switch hostels to one that caught more sea breezes – and therefore, less mosquitoes. Randomly smacking each other as protection was soon met with a “thanks” instead of a “what the hell!”.
When I landed back in the States, I was relieved to let down my mosquito guard – and, astonishingly, grateful for my home country’s non-disease-carrying suckers! As I walked through the airport, I saw a final reminder:
Two weeks later, with no fever, aches, or other bad omens, I happily announced to my friends and family that I was officially malaria, dengue, and chinkungunya free! I had survived the Caribbean mosquitoes.
A more serious side note:
While these mosquito-borne illnesses were temporary concerns while I was traveling, they’re a part of everyday life for those living in affected regions. In Central America, stories of friends and family contracting the diseases, though unfortunate, are rarely surprising. And for locals, constantly covering oneself in repellant is pretty impractical. In rural regions, where many families survive on subsistence farming, the same repellants are luxuries that few could even consider buying. Our strategies for staying healthy were strategies of the rich American travelers we were, despite being extremely low-budget by American standards.
Chikungunya alone infected a reported 103,018 people in only the first six months after it hit the Caribbean (12/2013 – 05/2014). Malaria claimed over 400,000 lives worldwide in 2015. For foreigners, like me, that don’t see these illnesses at home, meeting people that have overcome them helps me grasp the issues as very real sources of suffering. These conversations served as both a reality check about health risks faced around the world and a reminder for me about the benefits of living in the US that I too often take for granted.