So, you're back from Latin America. Forget the image of yourself landing back on US soil wearing a poncho and Guatemalan woven pants (as if) with your newfound main bitches in your arms, humming the song "Tequila." Instead, picture agents from the Center for Disease Contol in space suits meeting the your aircraft at JFK, because you have bichos.
"Bichos" is a slang term for parasites in many Latin American countries. They are a way of life. In fact, many people live happy lives while housing a few uninvited guests. Problems show up when these individuals' defenses get weakened due to depressed immune systems or malnutrition. Outsiders with naive immune systems (e.g. travelers) are prime targets for these diseases to get freaky with.
The jungle has always been associated with infectious diseases, but did you know that even the cities and sunny beaches could render you a tasty treat for disease-carrying insects and (gasp!) worms?
The jungle moist and hot, and therefore a great place for things to grow. Everywhere. Failure to wear proper insect repellant or to boil water can result in your getting a case of malaria or amoebic dysentary, both of which last a LONG time..Seemingly innocent activities like swimming and wading in freshwater lakes and streams can cause encounters between you and some voracious worms: schistosomiasis which affects.about 300 million worldwide and afflicts either the bladder or the intestines is housed in tiny snails that abound in these waters. The parasites enter the human body by boring into the skin, but they are so small that it goes unnoticed..The guinea worm makes its way in via the consumption of unclean drinking water and make its painful exit one year (and several inches) later through its host's skin..Other worms like those causing elephantiasis and river blindness get into your system by mosquito and blackfly bites, respectively.
The cities of many developing countries are notorious for their poor sanitation. Much of this is due to culturally different perceptions about what constitutes garbage. Articles like used tires and empty plastic cups are typically thrown into trash heaps (or recycling bins for the environmentally savvy) here, but that's because they're considered refuse. In many countries, however, these are useful containers. The downside is that rainwater collects in them and mosquitoes breed. As a result there are completely urbanized strains of mosquitoes like the notorious Aedes aegypti, which spreads dengue hemorrhagic fever. You get bit, you get a headache, joint pain and internal hemorrhage (PS you might also die).
While at the beach, you might get bitten by sandflies, which transmit leishmaniasis, a disease characterized by non-healing ulcers on the skin, and possible internal damage. Here's a thought: wear repellant and cover up (leave the thong behind). In a nutshell, you'll probably pick up something. However, through good hygiene and precautions you can avoid many of the more serious illnesses. Before your trip, go to your doctor. or health department for travel counseling. You'll most likely get shots and some preventative (anti-malarial) pills. While away, drink only bottled water, and wear protective clothing and insect repellant. If necessary sleep under mosquito netting. Don't let them bite you, love!
For more information see the CDC's and WHO's pages at www.cdc.gov. and www.who.org.
For more information on how these diseases look, see a Sally Struthers commercial.