Anti-malarial pills didn't stop me getting the disease

Cheryl Cole, the X Factor judge, is being treated for malaria after returning from an African holiday. While the disease is common in large parts of the world, for many British people, discovering they have the disease comes as a complete shock. Here, the BBC's Katie Fraser tells of her experience.

Katie Fraser

Start Quote

When I mentioned the Solomon Islands, it was a Eureka moment. As someone who had spent a number of years in Africa, she spotted the malarial signs”

End Quote Katie Fraser

Ten years ago I spent four months in the Solomon Islands, in the South Pacific. It is an area well-known for its high-risk of malaria so before leaving the UK, I stocked up on anti-malarial tablets that I took every day of my stay there. Other precautions I took included sleeping under a mosquito net and using a repellent spray in the evenings.

It was more than a year later when in the summer term of my first year at university I first began to feel "peaky". The sympathy from friends, and my parents when I rang home, was limited after two terms of making the most of student life.

As I lay in bed, friends who came to visit, reassured me that they knew how I felt, it was just a case of "fresher's flu".

I began to question this diagnosis when I woke up in the middle of the night so cold that I couldn't even put my hands outside of my duvet, never mind contemplate making the three steps across my room to get an extra jumper.

Malaria facts

  • Largely preventable and curable
  • In 2008 caused a million deaths - mostly African children
  • About 2,000 return to the UK with malaria every year
  • Only 12% of these become seriously ill
  • Symptoms can take up to a year to appear

Only a couple of hours later I was so hot the only place I was comfortable was by the window, lying on the cold floor of the corridor. But when I visited the university doctor I was told it was nothing more than a bad bout of flu.

Unable to attend lectures or do much else, I got the train home to my family. Being a warm summer's day I attracted a fair few suspicious glances as I sat huddled in my hooded jumper and woolly hat.

At home the symptoms persisted - an icy-cold chill followed by high-temperature sweats every couple of days. When not combating one or another of the extremes I felt totally wiped out and unable to lift myself out of bed.

Any doubt on my parents' part that this was simply a case of overindulging in the student lifestyle vanished when, still fully clad in a hooded jumper with a hot water bottle and extra rug, I cried at the prospect of taking my arm out from under the cover to eat a bowl of soup.

Three hours later, hot-water bottle, rug, jumper all discarded, the sheets were so soaked with sweat that they had to be changed.

Millions die of it

The local GP diagnosed flu and sent me home with a course of antivirals. As the same hot-cold-hot-cold cycle continued and the antibiotics failed to have an effect, I saw another doctor who made the same diagnosis but prescribed a different antibiotic. But the debilitating symptoms did not let up.

A further call to the surgery's out of hours service after a particularly hot spell resulted in the advice to take a tepid bath.

Child in Kibera, Nairobi Preventable and curable - the disease still kills millions

I recovered after a week or so and felt well enough to go back to university.

A fortnight later, I was back home for the holidays and out shopping when I felt the chill come back. It was so sudden that I couldn't leave the shop, the thought of going outside making me shiver. Thankfully, someone was able to call my mum who came to collect me and we drove straight to the GP's surgery.

This time however, it was a different outcome as the doctor asked if I'd been abroad in the past year, a question no-one else had posed.

When I mentioned the Solomon Islands, it was a Eureka moment. As someone who had spent a number of years in Africa, she spotted the malarial signs.

I went immediately to the tropical diseases ward of the local hospital where I had a blood test which confirmed I had malaria. It was the middle of the night when the results came through and I was immediately put on an intravenous drip of quinine.

Three days later I returned home, armed with the remainder of a course of quinine, and had made a full recovery within a week.

Despite the delay in diagnosis, having the resources of an advanced health service to hand was invaluable. Many sufferers in the developing world go untreated - and malaria causes about a million deaths a year.

Although four others out of the group of nine that I had been in the South Pacific with had contracted the disease, they had been ill within two months of our trip. It had never occurred to me that more than 12 months later that was what was wrong.

The doctors warned that the malaria bug would remain in my system for the rest of my life and there was a chance of a recurrence. However, 10 years on, I remain unaffected by it. But I would certainly be able to spot the symptoms if I did.

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