Why you should care
Because the flesh-eating parasite Leishmania kills 50,000 people every year.
I went to the hospital in Posadas, the surprisingly pleasant Argentine town on the border of Paraguay, nursing a nasty fernet hangover. The nurse took one look at my arm and gasped, “¡Infectadisimo!” (“F**ing infected!” in English). A surgeon who happened to be on duty pumped anesthetic into my arm and attacked the wound with a pair of forceps and, later, a scalpel. He bandaged it impressively and prescribed yet another course of antibiotics.
It had all started about two months earlier, in the Bolivian Amazon, where my body had become a plaything for mosquitoes and marihui (aka sand flies). A while later, while cruising down the Paraguay River on a ramshackle boat with a cargo of Cachaça-swigging gauchos and an enormous pile of building sand, one of the myriad bites flared up, forming a small, hard pyramid of matter. It didn’t hurt, but right from the start, it did smell.
The Paraguayan Chaco isn’t exactly at the cutting edge of medical innovation, so I had to make do with an antibiotic bought at a shack on a muddy riverbank. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work, and by the time I got to Argentina about two weeks later, I was in need of a decent steak, and a doctor.
That should have been where the whole saga ended, but unfortunately it wasn’t.
Later, while bodysurfing at a beach in Uruguay, a tumble into the coarse sand did my arm no good. The skin around the hole became hot and bubbly. Cracks formed, like crazy paving, with serum oozing from between the tiles. For the first time, I could feel pain. With it being Easter weekend in a heavily Catholic country, doctors were in short supply. But the Scottish vegans I was traveling with helped me locate a clinic in a nearby farming town. The doctor there advised a change of antibiotics, but after a few days my arm got worse. I even heard mention of the word “gangrene.” Luckily, the next antibiotic we tried brought my arm back from the edge.
As the months dragged on, I developed a few more sores, on my cheek, my scalp and my small toe. I became an expert at dousing my lesions in hydrogen peroxide and dressing them myself. When I finally returned home, to South Africa, I did the obvious thing and went to a private dermatologist. Bad idea. Once we’d established that I wasn’t 16 and didn’t have acne, the only thing that remained was for me to pay his exorbitant bill.
By the time I was finally diagnosed with leishmaniasis — by a professor of infectious diseases whose public AIDS clinic I gate-crashed — the disease was on the wane and all I could do was wait for my body to show it the door. Interestingly, that professor was the first medical professional who identified my wounds as being anything other than infected insect bites. He asked which countries I’d visited and where I’d slept, what type of insects had bitten me and what the wound looked like at the very beginning.
Within minutes, he was able to tell me that those bothersome marihui in Bolivia had implanted microscopic parasites that were systematically eating my flesh. My body’s natural response was to send rings of fighter cells to cordon off the crime scenes — hence all my wounds being round, like bullet holes, and totally free of pain.
That should have been where the whole saga ended, but unfortunately it wasn’t. An ill-advised fishing trip to a remote lake on the border of Kenya and Ethiopia resulted in my wounds flaring up again; the one on my cheek had to be drained of a syringeful of custardy pus. Eleven courses of antibiotics in five months had set my immune system back 100 years, and I constantly came down with the flu.
The wounds on my arm and my head healed eventually, but the volcano on my small toe lingered. Until, nearly two years after I first fell ill, I boarded a crowded commuter bus in Lima, Peru. While I was trying to pay the fare, a petite businesswoman in 6-inch stilettos stormed past, stamping on my toe in the process. She didn’t even look back, but everyone else on the bus watched in horror as a treacly mixture of blood and pus oozed into my sandal.
My friends and I went to a chemist and purchased the hydrogen peroxide and gauze that I knew so well. The shop owner even let me clean up in a tiny clinic at the back. After, my friends and I had a pizza and plotted infernal retribution on my attacker. Things had been going so well.
By the time we reached Santiago, Chile, my toe had healed completely. Once again I wanted to find that bloody woman, only this time to thank her. Finally, after a lingering dalliance with a flesh-eating parasite, I was on my own again.
Do I miss my intruder? Not a chance.