So this was a first.
Standing in the long winding queue at a government hospital in Mumbai waiting to get a Polio vaccine.
As a child, like most others, I had been given this vaccine, leaving me with an ugly round mark on my upper arm. Never in my life did I think I will have to do this again. In the queue, surrounded by sick people and crying babies, engulfed with the sound of shrieks, screams and coughs and an air of negligence and carelessness that most government hospitals in this part of the world are known for, I was talking myself out of leaving.
“This is will take hours!”
“So what? Just listen to your music. Hakuna Matata.”
“I want to go home and watch TV!”
“Be strong. This is for Africa.”
The truth is, had it not been for these vaccinations and the lengthy frustrating processes associated with getting them done, I would have travelled to Eastern Africa long back. Many of the African countries have cheap flights from India, offer Visa on Arrival or e-Visas and are “off the beaten track” destinations. Getting the Oral Polio and Yellow Fever vaccinations would open a whole new continent for me to explore.
In the end, queues aside, Oral Polio vaccination was a 2-minute affair. A few drops of the vaccine in my mouth and a signature by the doctor on the travel certificate and I was done. Hoorah!
(By the way, Oral Polio Vaccination certificate only has a validity of 1 year. Also, ideally, you should take it a month before you start travelling.)
Next was the big one. Yellow Fever Vaccination.
As per Wikipedia, Yellow Fever is a viral disease that causes 200000 infections and 30000 deaths a year. 90% of these casualties occur in Africa. The virus is spread by infected female mosquitoes (Those God damn mosquitoes!) and can cause liver damage, kidney problems, and death among other things. It is called Yellow Fever because if you are infected, your skin turns, you guessed it, yellow. (Homer Simpson?)
So, if you are in Africa and suddenly you get chills, fever, muscle pain, headaches, you probably have Yellow Fever, in which case, you are totally, royally, utterly and comprehensively fucked!
Yellow Fever Vaccination is a good idea then, right? Well, maybe.
First, some of the side effects of the vaccine are similar to the symptoms of Yellow Fever; aches, fever, headaches. One out of four vaccinated people, a really high percentage in my opinion, get these side effects.
One in 300000 people, develop infections in the nervous system, 5% of whom, die. One in 300000 people develop a disease called “viscerotropic disease”, 60% of whom die.
So, if you are really unlucky and having a shitty day, the vaccine, instead of saving you, may just end up killing you.
The good thing however is, the certificate is valid for 10 years!
So, I got up at 4 am on a Wednesday morning and travelled to the other side of Mumbai to reach the Airport Health Organisation which is one of the few designated Yellow Fever Vaccination centres in the state. I waited at the gate for the next 4 hours waiting for the registrations to begin. The daily vaccination quota for the centre is 70 people. If you are the 71st guy, you will need to do come back the next day.
The vaccine is apparently in short supply and once a unit, that serves 10 people, is opened it cannot be stored. Hence, they vaccinate people in multiples of 10. So, if you are the 31st guy, you will need to wait for 9 more people to get vaccinated. If 9 more people don’t show up, you will have to try your luck another day.
As you may now understand it is supremely important to reach the centre early. And I did. So what if I was cranky and sleep deprived? I was second in line! (I was first but a guy cut through when I dozed off for a bit. Sneaky bastard!)
After registrations and a Rs.300 fee, we waited another couple of hours in a waiting hall before the vaccine filled syringe entered my upper arm and the certificate was issued. As I write this about 6 weeks after the vaccination, I am glad to announce I do not have any of the side effects.
There was another medication I was advised to take before my safari in Uganda. It was for malaria. I remember going around in Gisenyi, which is a DRC Congo- Rwanda border town, looking for a pharmacy. I ended up buying a medicine called Mephaquin and just like Yellow Fever, it had another list of side effects ranging from fever and headaches to suicidal thoughts. Lots of back and forth later, and after taking opinion of a pharmacy employee in Kampala, who basically said all the malaria medicine have similar side effects and it’s rare to actually get them, I finally mustered up the courage to take it. For prevention, I need to take it once every week for 4 weeks.
I remember asking this question to the lady at the Kampala pharmacy.
“Will the mosquitoes not bite me if I take this medicine?”
She chuckled, and then said in the nicest voice.
“They will bite you, but you will not get…. well, chances are less.. that you will get malaria.”
So, basically there was a chance that I could have ended up with both the side effects of the medicine and the disease that the medicine was supposed to protect me from. Worst of both worlds.
Thankfully I didn’t. I still need to take two more of those pills though. (I did get light fever in Kenya, after I took the second pill but it could have been the long uncomfortable bus ride that made me sick.)
As I look back on these three vaccinations, all the crying babies, waking up early, the long queues, the risks (rare but there nonetheless), I cannot help but ask myself, if it was worth it. Was it worth the pain just to travel to “Third World” countries like Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia? Would it not have been easier to just travel to Singapore and Philippines like I originally planned?
The short answer is yes, it was worth it. It was a pain but I am glad I got it done. Travelling through East Africa was tough, no doubt, but it was just as memorable. Probably one of my most memorable trips. Having travelled to South East Asia many times over in the past few years, I was okay with putting off Singapore and Philippines for now to visit Africa.
Sure, waking up at 4 am was horrible, the queues were frustrating and the African mosquitoes ate half of my right leg anyway, but it had to be done.
It needed to be done.
It needed to be done for the love of travel.
For there is no vaccine for a guy bitten by the travel bug.
(Keep an eye out for more posts from the trip and Rhinos!)