Vector Borne Diseases: These are transmitted via mosquitoes, ticks, rats, etc. Though most are transmitted from human to human via mosquitoes (Spanish for “little fly”), primarily in Africa, Asia, and the tropics, we do have a few here in the States to be aware of. While vaccinations are available for some, preventive measures are the only safeguard for the majority. As with most diseases, awareness of symptoms and early diagnosis and treatment are key. If after being in the backcountry you develop severe fever, chills, rash, fatigue, headaches, stiff neck and achy joints, nausea or diarrhea, make sure your physician is aware of where you’ve been and what you were doing. If you are in the field, locate a doctor ASAP!
Ticks, Rats and Mice: Lyme disease (B. burgdorferi) is a nasty critter that is spread by ticks, and causes dermatologic, rheumatologic and other pain-in-the-tologic abnormalities. Most common is a ring-type rash, fatigue and fever within 30 days. Untreated, it can cause long-term neurological and cardiac conditions. Transmission to you from the carrier is said to require 72 hours, so check closely for ticks each day. Using repellant on clothing and exposed skin also reduces risk. Don’t forget to inspect your pets, especially if they dive into your sleeping bag to stay warm at night.
Hantavirus: This rare but deadly disease is transmitted through contact with the urine or fecal matter of rodents, and there is no known treatment. In short, use caution when rummaging through old mines, ghost towns and other places rodents reside.
Mosquito Threats (U.S. and abroad): West Nile Virus, which can be fatal, is a recent concern in the States. Though 80 percent of people show no symptoms, about five percent of those that do may perish or experience long-term effects.
Malaria is the most common mosquito-transmitted disease and is credited for millions of deaths annually worldwide. Important to remember is that symptoms—fever, chills and flu-like conditions—might not show up for a year. Fortunately, there are effective anti-malaria drugs available, and the disease is treatable. Though some experience short-term side effects, the drug mefloquine (taken orally each week), has worked well for me.
Yellow Fever is common in much of the world. Fortunately, a vaccination is available and is on the short-list of needles your travel nurse will poke you with.
Dengue Fever: The origin for this emerging wonder is monkeys. Mosquito bites infect monkey, then the bug bites you, and you’re infected. Though only two percent of cases are fatal, early diagnosis is crucial and treatment is similar to that of a severe fever. Sorry, no cure-all needles for this one.
Though we can take medications and receive immunizations for vector-borne diseases such as malaria, yellow fever and Lyme disease, be sure to slop on the bug spray. I’ve used a number of products from Backwoods Off (28-percent Deet) to Repel (100-percent Deet). The reality is that in some environs such as the tropics, flying and biting arthropods eat this stuff for breakfast. It is advised to wear long pants, long-sleeve shirts and a hat that covers the back of your neck, and sleep under a mosquito net when in high-risk areas.
Pack Smart: No one likes to get sick. When it happens on the road, it can really be a bummer. Antidiarrheal meds, such as Ammonium AD and doctor-prescribed Ciprofloxacin (antibiotic), should keep your trek in forward motion. Decongestants, motion-sickness pills, Ibuprofen, a laxative and an antacid are also part of my meds kit. Important! Prescriptions should be in original pharmacy-labeled containers. Detainment and extensive questioning may be the result if a handful of loose pills is discovered during a search of your gear.
About Chris Collard
A southern California native, photojournalist Chris Collard has been wheeling in the dirt since age five (dirt bike). A certified SCUBA instructor who also holds a private pilot’s license, he has trekked across more than 40 countries on five continents, and his work has been published in National Geographic Adventure, Car & Driver, Cigar Aficionado and numerous other publications. When not hacking his way through equatorial rain forests, he makes his home near Sacramento, California.