Health/Wellness, travel

Say Hello to My Little Friend

Parasites Woes

Say hello to my little friend. Her name is Hymenolepsis. She’s a gut parasite. And she and a whole crew of her little friends recently made themselves at home in my belly.

After all the jokes I heard about Montezuma’s Revenge when I told people I was going to Mexico, I would have expected something more dramatic. But I had no obvious symptoms. No pain, no desperate dashing to the toilet. In fact, I only discovered the parasite as part of the routine testing done through Passport to Health, a program offered by the East Cape Clinic here in Los Barriles (more on that next week).

A lucky break, right? Who knows what kind of havoc those dwarf tapeworms could have wreaked with more time to reproduce! And my diagnosis inspired others in my circle of LB friends to get tested.

Which, by the way, is an extremely simple process down here: you walk into the clinic and ask for a sample cup. No gatekeepers, no questions asked. I even picked up the cup for one of my friends, no problema. Turnaround time for results is about 24 hours. The clinic provides a written report and suggestions for which anti-parasite medication to take. Then you walk to the pharmacy next door, or to any pharmacy in town, and tell them what you want. My three day supply of Daxon cost a little over 300 pesos, roughly $17 U.S. dollars. The lab test itself costs 250 pesos, about $13 American dollars.

No co-pay. No paperwork. You’re in, you’re out, you’re taken care of. For thirty bucks – in the same ballpark as the co-pay alone in many U.S. insurance plans, and less than half the $70 co-pay I had to cough up for urgent care when my parents’ dog bit me last year. And just to be clear, that was $70 each time I walked through the door – initial visit, return consult – and did not include any fees for actual treatment. Are you surprised that I ignored the recommendation that I return a third time just to make sure the infection had fully cleared?

Both of my friends who were tested found that they too had gut parasites. One, like me, had very few symptoms and probably would not have discovered her problem had I not tested positive. The other friend had been experiencing some serious digestive issues, but like me, has a history of gut problems, including gluten intolerance. We’ve spent much of the trip figuring out what and where we can and cannot eat down here and especially how to avoid getting “glutened” in local restaurants. She is especially sensitive and is always the first to ask, “Sin gluten?” When in doubt, we order tacos de pescado a la plancha. It’s hard to go wrong health-wise with a grilled fish taco, and they’re usually incredibly delicious.

Despite a few mishaps, we’ve been pretty successful in dealing with the gluten issue. The parasites, though…. It’s hard to know the exact source of the infection. It could be the water, for example. I’m buying purified water to drink, but I wash my dishes, shower and wash my hands in the local tap water, so maybe that’s the culprit. Or it could be the food. There could be trace contaminants on the local veggies, either from a restaurant or the grocery store. My go-to veggies when cooking tend toward carrots, cucumbers, beets and other veggies that I usually peel. But I’ve been eating a ton of cilantro and haven’t been washing that. Or you know, it might have been the organic spinach imported from the U.S. that I’ve been buying because the local choices for lettuce – romaine and iceberg – get pretty boring after a month. Food contamination isn’t just a problem in Mexico, right? Or I even might have infected myself by prioritizing water conservation over surgery-worthy hand scrubbing.

At the end of the day, I’m not losing any sleep trying to figure out how my little friends got into my gut. We’ve been down here in the Baja for nearly two months. Who knows when I picked up the parasite.

Besides which, my body has a long history of gut issues (and more), diagnostic challenges, and less than satisfying or effective treatment options. Right now, I’m just psyched about having a health problem that can be diagnosed with a simple lab test and fixed with a three-day regimen of drugs. I’m feeling great, my belly is happy, life is good.

Image Caption: Hymenolepis diminuta scolex. Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Wikipedia

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