During the weeks before my Christmas vacation in America, I made lists of all the foods I wanted to eat, the restaurants I wanted to visit and the snacks to bring back to Togo. Basically I thought a lot about food. I also imagined how enjoyable it would be to hang out with my high school friends, visit my boyfriend and spend the holidays with my parents. My vacation went exactly as planned through Christmas, and the next day I got bacterial meningitis.
It started with an ear infection, a nagging pain that I’ve experienced many times (blame my Eustachian tube). When my eardrum ruptured and the pain stopped, I thought I was better. But by the next day, I had a headache that was 100 times worse than the pain of the ear infection. Even after I took painkillers, it didn’t let up. All I could think about was the headache, and I stopped paying attention to what was going on around me. At one point, I vaguely heard an ER doctor asking me what was wrong, but I couldn’t bring myself to respond.
I woke up in a hospital room, unsure of the time or date. Once I asked the nurse, I learned that more than 12 hours had passed and I had been diagnosed with bacterial meningitis, an infection of the lining of the brain and spinal cord. The doctors weren’t sure if it was the contagious kind or not; until they knew, I was on isolation.
Thankfully, I was put on antibiotics fast enough that I didn’t have any permanent effects from the disease. Although I had contracted a serious form of meningitis, it wasn’t contagious. And I was able to leave the hospital and continue my antibiotic therapy at home after a few days of hospitalization. An internal IV was inserted into my vein so I could administer my own medicine twice a day. Considering meningitis can cause brain damage, coma or even death, I was pretty lucky.
My friends and family always suspected that I’d contract a dangerous disease during my Peace Corps service. And it is true—sub-Saharan Africa is truly the “meningitis belt.” But the disease has a seven to 10 day incubation period; I could not have carried it over from Togo, despite what my friends might have suspected.
“Every year, bacterial meningitis epidemics affect more than 400 million people living in the 21 countries of the meningitis belt—from Senegal to Ethiopia,” according to the World Health Organization. Nearly 23,000 cases were recorded in 2010, with the highest number in Burkina Faso. Epidemics are worst during the dry season from December to June. Meningitis epidemics are so common in the “belt” that the Center for Disease Control advises travelers to the area to get vaccinated, especially if they will be in prolonged contact with the local population.
In order to qualify for Peace Corps service, volunteers in Togo have already been vaccinated. This vaccination protects against most kinds of meningitis, including the Neisseria strain causing the epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa. There are other kinds of meningitis too: viral, parasitic, fungal, and non-infectious meningitis, the CDC reports. But none of these kinds are as dangerous as bacterial meningitis.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to return to Togo or to complete my Peace Corps service. I am now looking into public health opportunities in the U.S. I’m thankful I was at home in Oregon when I contracted the disease, and that my parents were such great advocates for my health. Ultimately we all need to be health advocates, not only for our own health, but also for our friends and families, for our neighbors and for our communities.
(also published in PC Togo’s health newsletter)