Whenever you get sick, you’re reminded of how much being sick totally sucks. I just got done with being sick right now, and because of that, I’ve had this awful, lingering cough that refuses to go away. No matter how much I’ve suffered when I’m sick throughout my life, it’s always the worst when I’m experiencing it for that moment, so even though this is by far not the worst I’ve felt in my life, it feels like it is because I feel this way right now. Whenever you get sick, you tend to lose your perspective on things. When you’re sick, you feel like that’s the absolute worst you can feel, and that there’s no real end to your suffering. Unfortunately, there are an innumerable amount of diseases in the world, and there are a lot of ways to get sick. Few diseases are quite as horrifying as the ones you can get in the tropics.
Not all of these diseases are infectious ones, by the way. While some of these diseases are highly contagious and spread like wildfire, others are more chronic. However, that doesn’t mean that those diseases aren’t any more horrifying than the contagious ones. Some of these diseases will put you to sleep indefinitely, while others might make it so tiny, parasitic beings are living inside of you. Still, others might make it so you’re bleeding out of every orifice. If you’re looking to vacation in the tropics, be aware of the different level of infections and diseases that live in these regions of the world. Here are 15 weird diseases that live in the tropics that make the common cold and flu look like the greatest things that could ever happen to a person.
Elephantiasis isn’t just a disease. It’s often a symptom of a variety of other diseases, so don’t be surprised if this topic pops up a few times throughout this article. Basically, elephantiasis is when a part of your body, or more than one part of your body, swells to the point of grotesquerie. Sometimes it’s an immune disease that affects your blood vessels, while other times it’s a side effect of a run in with some horrifying parasitic worms. We’re going to be talking about that second type later on in all of this, but for now, the thing that you need to know is that elephantiasis is a really painful thing to live with. While it most commonly affects the limbs, some people have actually gotten it on their genitals. If you’ve ever been hit in the genitals before, I can promise you that elephantiasis on your genitals is probably much worse.
Progeria is a ridiculously rare genetic disorder where very young people age really fast. If you’ve ever seen kids who look like tiny old people, chances are this is the thing that they have. Unfortunately, this aging isn’t just a cosmetic thing: kids who get this only ever live to their mid teens or early twenties. To make matters all the scarier, you can’t actually predict when this will happen to someone. The genetic mutation that gives a kid progeria is a new mutation, which means that you don’t inherit it. After all, kids with progeria very rarely get to the point where they can pass on their genetics, so when someone new gets the disease, it’s because their genes mutated in the wrong way. Basically, this is a Benjamin Button type disease, except the kids who get it aren’t played by Brad Pitt, and they don’t age backward. Curiously, the Benjamin Button movie might have been responsible for this disease.
We’re calling this disease FOP because its full name is Fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva, and I don’t know if I can even pronounce that, let alone spell it one more time. Regardless, FOP is caused by a mutation in the part of your body that fixes itself. The fibrous tissue in your body, like your muscles, tendons, and ligaments, stop working if something goes wrong. Your body will still fix itself, but it won’t use the right materials to fix things. When researchers looked at the bodies of FOP patients surgically, they found that their bodies were repairing themselves with bone, which is decidedly not what you want in parts of your body that are supposed to be moving. If you get hurt, you might find that your joints that were involved might have frozen in place permanently because of this. Kids who have FOP are born with malformed big toes, and the first symptoms start to show before the kid turns 10. Because FOP is a ridiculously rare disease, a lot of doctors think that it’s cancer or fibrosis when they see it at first.
12. Alice In Wonderland Syndrome
This disease is almost creepy, and not in the way that the Alice in Wonderland franchise is creepy. Alice in Wonderland syndrome is a neurological condition that affects the way you see the world. It’s actually pretty common for kids and adults who don’t sleep. People with Alice in Wonderland syndrome often feel like their bodies or parts of their bodies are bigger or smaller than they are, which is way scarier than you think it is. Objects get bigger or smaller for no reason, either. Like elephantiasis, this is one of those things that’s often a symptom of a deeper issue. For example, one major sign of Alice in Wonderland syndrome is migraines, and the migraines themselves can cause this to happen to you. People who have different neurological diseases often find that they have to deal with this. This is not a rabbit hole anyone wants to fall down.
11. Guinea Worm Disease
Guinea worm disease is caused by a parasite that’s called Dracunculus medinensis. This parasite lives in contaminated water, and it spreads around because people drink water that contains the worms or their larvae. Remote communities in Africa that don’t have safe water to drink have to deal with guinea worm disease a lot. Once people drink it, they pass through the stomach and into the body at large, and over the course of months, the larvae grow up into adults that are as long as three feet and as wide as noodles, and pop out of a person’s feet. Those people end up putting their feet in water because it relieves the pain, but then that water gets contaminated, and the process starts all over again. It’s all very horrifying and gross.
Fortunately, global health officials all over the world think that guinea worm disease might be one of the first parasitic diseases to get totally eliminated all over the world. There are some cases that pop up every now and then, but according to records in 2014, cases of the disease went from 3.5 million every year to 126 in 2014.
Ebola has a way of causing a ton of panic in people. To be fair, anyone would be panicked and paranoid about a disease that causes a hemorrhagic fever and makes people bleed all over the place. Ebola gets spread around because of body fluids or even airborne transmission, and semen and breast milk can carry the virus for months on end. The virus gets carried about by fruit bats, an animal that doesn’t get affected by it. Ebola affects basically everything in your body, and it kills about half of the people that get in on average, depending on where you are. The disease starts out by giving you a fever, sore throat and headaches, which might make you think that you’ve got the flu. You won’t be thinking you’ve got the flu when your kidneys and liver stop functioning as well as they normally do. You might find yourself wishing that you have the flu when your body starts to bleed, both internally and externally. Dealing with an outbreak among a community can be really difficult because the disease is horrible to treat and incredibly easy to spread around.
9. African Sleeping Sickness
African trypanosomiasis, or African sleeping sickness, is yet another parasitic disease that happens to you when you get bitten by a tsetse fly. When that happens, you might find yourself dealing with fevers, headaches, and itchiness within one to three weeks after the bite. It takes weeks or even months to hit the second stage of the disease when you might start feeling confused or even numb. Ironically, at this stage of the game, you might find yourself dealing with trouble sleeping. The disease will mess with your brain’s ability to tell you when it’s time to go to sleep, which might make you sleep all day but stay awake all night. On top of that, you might deal with a ton of other neurological symptoms like confusion, paralysis, and symptoms that make it look like you’ve got Parkinson’s disease. With this disease, you need to get treated fast, because if you stay without treatment for a long time, you’ll eventually fall into a coma, your organs will fail, and you’ll die. You’ll literally sleep yourself to death.
8. Amoebas That Eat Your Brain
Naegleria fowleri is a parasitic ameba that will literally eat your brain. It lives in freshwater and waits until you inhale the amoebas in through your nose. The amoebas travel up your nose and into your brain, where it starts to eat away at your brain tissue in a couple of stages that are kind of complicated, so I’m just going to get into symptoms. Weirdly enough, these amoebas are perfectly happy eating regular bacteria until they get to a human brain, and then they get an appetite for neurons and astrocytes. It takes about one to twelve days (the average is five) for the symptoms to show up, and when that happens, you’ll throw up a lot and get a fever and headache. After that, you’ll end up with symptoms like seizures, hallucinations, and a stiff neck. Once you get symptoms, it’s already too late: death normally happens within a couple of weeks.
7. Kuru Disease
Kuru disease is an extremely rare neurodegenerative disorder that spread like wildfire among the Fore people of Papua New Guinea. It’s a prion disorder, and when the ‘prions’ aren’t folded properly and get spread around, it leads to some pretty nasty symptoms, like tremors and neurodegeneration, which you can see in the brain scan above. It’s called “kuru” disease because “kuru” is the word for “shaking” in the Fore language. You might wonder how prion proteins get transmitted among different people since proteins aren’t often things that spread disease. It turns out that the reason kuru disease even became a thing because the Fore tribe of Papua New Guinea would eat their dead family members as a funeral rite. They’d cook them up and eat their brains, where infectious prions live. The lesson here? Don’t eat people, and especially don’t eat them as part of a funeral rite.
6. Nodding Disease
Unlike many of these diseases, nodding syndrome isn’t actually that old of a disease. It showed up sometime in the 60s, in Sudan. Unfortunately, this is a mentally and physically debilitating disease that only affects young kids between the ages of five and 15. Nodding disease is when a kid has a permanent stunt on their growth, and it’s called nodding disease because of the seizures the kids get. Those seizures start when they start to eat food, or even when they feel a little cold. Once the kids stop eating or get warm again, the seizure goes away. In 2004, expert neurotoxicologist Peter Spencer stated: “It is, by all reports, a progressive disorder, and a fatal disorder, perhaps with a duration of about three years or more.” No one knows what causes the disease, but the general theory is that it has a lot to do with a parasite called Onchocerca volvulus, which is something that’s really common in the few places where nodding syndrome happens. This disease also seems to have a connection to the Yei River, where most of the kids who get it live. Onchocerca volvulus also causes river blindness, which we’ll talk about later.
This disease honestly scares the crap out of me. Leishmaniasis is caused by parasites that get spread around by sandflies and has three ways to presenting itself: cutaneous, mucocutaneous, or visceral leishmaniasis. The cutaneous version presents with skin ulcers, which certainly aren’t fun. However, the mucocutaneous version is worse: ulcers show up, but they’re not just on the skin, they’re in your mouth and nose, too. The visceral form is even worse than that: it starts off with skin ulcers, but then messes with your blood cells and enlarges your spleen and liver. While some of these diseases have largely been eradicated, leishmaniasis is most definitely not one of those. The disease affects around twelve million people in 98 countries. Two million new cases happen every year, and ever year some 20,000-50,000 people die. 200 million people live in areas where leishmaniasis is an issue, and it can even affect animals. Awareness is being raised and there are treatments available, but there’s still a long way to go before we can call this disease obsolete.
While some of these diseases are less than a century old, leprosy has been around since biblical times. We used to think that leprosy was a skin disease because of the skin lesions that would pop up, but we know better now. Leprosy is actually a nerve disease that can lie in wait anywhere from five to twenty years before symptoms show up. When they do show up, you’ll be dealing with granulomas on your skin, but they’ll also show up on your nerves and even on your eyes! It can also affect your ability to feel pain, and your eyesight might really suffer for it. Then again, considering the fact that the granulomas have the potential to show up on your eyes and nerves, this probably isn’t all that surprising. While leprosy is a big deal if you get it, it’s actually not all that contagious: it spreads through a cough or contact with an infected person’s nose fluids. That sounds like it would be really contagious, but it’s not, probably because it takes so long for symptoms to show up. Luckily, leprosy is curable now, but it takes a drug regimen that you have to stick to for six months.
3. Lymphatic Filariasis
Remember when we talked about elephantiasis? Before, we were talking about the symptom, but now, we’re talking about the disease itself. Lymphatic filariasis happens when parasitic worms get spread around. While the disease doesn’t normally have symptoms, sometimes people get elephantiasis. Apart from that, lymphatic filariasis has symptoms like skin rashes, weird papules on the eyes, and arthritis. Lymphatic filariasis happens when you get infected by a parasitic worm, and your body actually doesn’t care which worm does the job. The disease depends on a lot of different things to get you sick: the worm itself, the bacteria that lives inside the worm, the immune system of the person with the worms inside them, and the different infections that live in the body of that person. The parasite can wreck all kinds of havoc, which is why the WHO deworms communities at risk every so often, to prevent the spread of the disease.
Malaria is an infectious disease that can affect humans and other animals that are caused by protozoa that feed off of people. The symptoms include fever, vomiting, and headaches, but if malaria gets really bad, it can cause seizures, yellow skin, and can make you fall into a coma or even kill you. This is a disease that can look like a bunch of different diseases, like sepsis, gastroenteritis, and viral diseases, because of all of the symptoms that could potentially show up. While there are a lot of symptoms to deal with when you have malaria, the one you really want to look out for is paroxysm, which is when you end up feeling cold and hot in a cycle that occurs over the course of days. Depending on the strain of malaria you have, it can happen every two, three or four days. While the disease sucks, the worst thing about it is the complications, which include a variety of respiratory issues, and the fact that it makes HIV worse.
1. River Blindness
We’ve touched on river blindness before, because the thing that causes it, Onchocerca volvulus, causes at least two other diseases on this list. Since this parasite affects the eyes, a lot of things can end up causing river blindness. The good thing about this is that you have to be bitten by a lot of the flies that cause river blindness in order to actually get it. However, there’s no vaccine for the virus, and if you live around a lot of the flies that cause river blindness, it can be really hard to stop yourself from being bitten by them. Once the larvae get inside you, they grow up and make more larvae, which then make their way out of your body. Because the disease messes with your eyes, you can actually see the larvae swimming around in your eyes, which is particularly disturbing, at least to me. This is a neglected tropical disease, meaning that it doesn’t show up quite as often anymore, but the fact that the larvae can actually be seen inside your eyes and the fact that treatment doesn’t actually kill the adult worms or make the lumps under your skin caused by the disease go away are the reasons why this disease tops the list.