I went on holiday - and all I got was this lousy disease

Thousands of Britons every year bring back more than a tan and a suitcase of souvenirs from their trips abroad. Hermione Eyre hears some gut-wrenching stories
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Indy Lifestyle Online

'Hello, I'm studying English and I probably have rabies." Every fresher needs a chat-up line, and this was mine. I thought it would make me sound tough and well-travelled. But others were at the same game. "Oh yeah?" replied another student, manifestly unimpressed. "Well I've had malaria. Twice."

'Hello, I'm studying English and I probably have rabies." Every fresher needs a chat-up line, and this was mine. I thought it would make me sound tough and well-travelled. But others were at the same game. "Oh yeah?" replied another student, manifestly unimpressed. "Well I've had malaria. Twice."

In fact, neither of us had anything to boast about. I'd had rabies injections after a nip on the ankle from a Nepalese dog; his feverish cold had been misdiagnosed. If we'd really been ill we'd have known that tropical diseases are no matter for small talk.

Of the 20 million Britons that go on holiday this year, as many as 7 million will become ill. Two thousand will contract malaria, and with the lethal strain falciparum now prevalent, 12 travellers will die from the disease; another 1,700 will get HIV. And millions of holidaymakers, whether in Lanzarote or New Guinea, will have an upset stomach while they're away.

"Most holiday illness is easily preventable," sighs Dr Chris Beeching of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. "But with flights becoming more and more last-minute, people are forgetting immunisations and tablets." Some anti-malarial tablets need to be taken a week before travel, and travellers need to take the right type of anti-malarial drug for their destination. But Beeching worries that "people are reluctant to pay for anti-malarials, which is short-sighted. They just aren't thinking about the fact that they're going to a dangerous place."

Locations such as Latin America are becoming more accessible but remain full of savage risks. Witness Redmond O'Hanlon: "In the Amazons... should you inadvertently urinate as you swim, any homeless candiru will take you for a big fish and swim up your stream of uric acid, enter your urethra and put out a set of retrorse spines. The pain, apparently, is spectacular. You must get to a hospital before your bladder bursts; you must ask a surgeon to cut off your penis."

Female travellers are also at risk from the candiru. You have been warned. For general advice, go to www.nathnac.org, or consult Dr Richard Dawood's Traveller's Health, OUP, £4.99.

'I took off my trousers and found a red maggot poking its head out of my thigh'

Jenny Potter, 63, a photographer, went to Zimbabwe and came back hosting parasites.

I had a lovely 10-day holiday near Harare. I didn't think I'd get ill because I'd plastered myself in insect killer, instead of using it like Chanel No 5 like I normally do. But then, a week after I got back, I was on the sofa watching telly, when I scratched my leg and got a handful of blood. Off with my trousers and there in the middle of my thigh there's a red thing poking its head out. "That looks a bit like a maggot," I thought. So I got out my strong glasses, and then when I saw it was wiggling about I let out a squawk, fetched my eyebrow tweezers and pulled it out. I dropped the maggot into an empty film canister and shut the lid on it. I saw I had about five others also on - or rather in - my person, but I left them alone. I had a large vodka and went to bed.

Next day the doctor's surgery hadn't got any appointments free, but when I said: "African maggots in my skin" they showed me in double quick. The doctor was absolutely amazed and sent me to the Hospital for Tropical Diseases, where the staff were delighted to see the maggots still wiggling. Lots of them came over to look. Then we covered off the maggot's breathing holes, which are two black dots, and popped 'em out.

It turned out that they were Tumbu flies which lay their eggs in your clothes if you leave them out to dry. Then they hatch into your skin. Ironing your clothes kills them off. My experience won't stop me travelling, only next time I'll pack my iron.

'Luckily I didn't haemorrhage through eyes, nose or elsewhere, as can happen'

Ruth Wilkinson, 34, an Alexander Technique teacher, contracted Dengue fever in Costa Rica

It was only a two-week family holiday, but three of us came down with Dengue fever. It's a new disease in South America and there's nothing you can take to prevent it, nor any way of treating it. You just have to try to avoid getting bitten during the day, which is when the Dengue mosquitoes are around. We were walking in volcanic jungle and I was munched on by about 40 mosquitoes.

Two days after I got back home, I started feeling very achey, sick and generally grotty. Luckily, I didn't haemorrhage through the eyes, nose or elsewhere, as can happen with Dengue, which can be lethal. But I was hospitalised for eight days. They tell you you're not allowed to take aspirin but apart from that, there's nothing they can really do. You just have to sit it out.

'We had two good days then the kids got diarrhoea and started vomiting non-stop'

Tarek Ghouri, 36, MD of a telecommunications company, saw his family hospitalised by a water-borne bug in Mallorca.

Alarm bells started to ring when I first saw the pool. Although it was a four-star hotel, the pool was mucky round the edges, and overcrowded. I found lollipop wrappers and plasters floating in the water. We only had two good days before both my kids lost their appetite and started having stomach cramps. They got diarrhoea and started vomiting non-stop. We called in a doctor, who told us that it was just a reaction to the weather being hotter than normal.

We started to realise it was more serious when a lady came over and said that 70 other kids in the hotel were also ill. A day later, the number was up to 150. We held a public meeting about it, and we worked out that the pool was at fault, because the hotel was primarily self-catering, and we all knew not to drink the local water or ice-cubes. Also, someone said they'd seen a child having uncontrollable diarrhoea while going down the waterslide. Not the kid's fault of course, but that probably infected the water. None of the travel reps turned up to this meeting so we effectively stormed their office and in the end they closed the pool down. The lurgy responsible is Cryptosporidium, a water-borne parasite.

Meanwhile, my daughter, Natasha, who's four, hadn't moved for four days except to vomit or have diarrhoea. I grabbed one of the doctors visiting the hotel and he sent her off to hospital in an ambulance. She was put on a drip and needed 11 bags of fluid because she was so dehydrated. My 10-year-old, Alexander, was also hospitalised after vomiting blood. My wife tested negative - but she did less swimming and she didn't go down the water slide. I had a bit of diarrhoea and tests show I have the bug in my system, where it'll stay for six weeks. It'll take us a long time to recover from that holiday.

'I thought the pills' side effects were as bad as malaria. I found out otherwise'

Precious Williams, 30, a journalist, caught malaria in Nigeria.

I went to Nigeria to visit some relatives - it was just a four-day trip and very last-minute so I didn't have time to take any anti-malarial pills before I left. I'd also had some bad experiences in the past with anti-malarial drugs. I thought the side effects were almost as bad as actually having malaria. But then I found out otherwise.

I got back to England and the weather was mild but I felt stiflingly hot. However much water I drank, I felt thirsty and faint and I was hallucinating and shivering. The symptoms were very sudden - one day I was fine, the next I was seriously ill. I went to my GP who suspected malaria and sent me to a tropical diseases specialist. I learnt never to be so irresponsible about taking anti-malarial protection again. I felt very weak and had to have time off work; it took me ages to recover.