As a physician who specializes in travel medicine, Dr. Mark Baxter can promise he’ll never diagnose an illness as the dreaded gom-boo.
That’s because gom-boo only shows up in (fish) stories. However, he adds, “There’s plenty of stuff close to it with similar names.”
And physicians will likely see new exotic illnesses as more and more Utahns travel to tropical destinations.
As a long-time Air Force physician and FAA-certified Senior Aviation Medical Examiner who provides physicals for professional pilots, Dr. Baxter has seen many of the sometimes-painful exotic viruses and infections carried to the U.S. from Third World countries.
Dr. Baxter joined the U.S. Air Force during the first Gulf War and was assigned for two years as a physician based at the Chicago O’Hare International Airport. However, he saw more exotic bugs and viruses as a senior staff physician at Hill Air Force Base. “People are deployed all over the world, and you get a lot of strange things,” he says.
Now, he works with people who have tickets to go — on safaris or to Mexico or the Caribbean.
He offers the many varied immunizations required to access some parts of the globe, providing an international health certificate for the patient that is likely to be checked by immigration officials at the destination.
“That’s mostly what I do,” he said, “because luckily most people travel and don’t get sick.”
When they do, however, here are some of the more common illnesses that make their way back to the United States:
▸ Breakbone fever
This virus is also known as dengue fever, but breakbone is much more descriptive of what it produces: pain so intense it can be compared with a broken bone. He’s seen it especially in travelers to the Caribbean. Fortunately, he says, “It doesn’t do anything permanent. Nobody really dies of those; you just don’t feel really good.”
▸ Traveler’s diarrhea
This is what Dr. Baxter calls “gut stuff,” ailments most often caused by parasites. Dr. Baxter says he sees this malady among travelers who’ve returned from Mexico. “In Mexico, the water system is not nearly as good as ours,” he said. “In a lot of countries it’s just so hard and expensive to treat water.” His advice: Don’t drink water unless it’s in a sealed bottle.
Malaria can be a serious threat to those traveling to most parts of the developing world. Classic symptoms begin with a headache, but soon morph into high fever and body shakes, as well as abdominal pain and nausea.
Malaria is treatable using today’s sophisticated medicine. Unfortunately, malaria can wait a period of time before it makes a traveler sick. “Malaria can sometimes show up six months, a year after you’ve been exposed,” he said.
Malaria is a parasitic disease spread by mosquitoes. Because it’s so serious and widespread, travelers’ best protection is lots of bug repellant, as well as maintaining the routine of taking immunization pills before and during the trip, and for several weeks after.
▸ Viral hemorrhagic fevers
“There’s a number of pretty nasty viruses in Africa,” he said. Ebola fits into this category. But what Dr. Baxter sees are the much less serious types such as Rift Valley Fever, spread by mosquitoes. Symptoms are usually mild for this virus but can include fever, back pain and dizziness.
This long word translates in Dr. Baxter’s mind as: “Don’t swim in rivers in Third World countries.” The schistosoma parasitic worm, which lives in freshwater, attaches to skin or feet. Its symptoms include an initial rash (swimmer’s itch), as well as coughing and diarrhea.
“A lot of people swim in the Nile,” he says. But he adds with a laugh, “It’s just not a good idea.”
▸ West Nile virus
This mosquito-spread virus once thrived only in exotic locations, but since 1999 it has become common in the Western Hemisphere. Although the media alerts us when West Nile infections turn deadly, most cases go unreported and have only mild symptoms, he said. “It’s a virus that a lot of people get but don’t notice,” he said. “They just don’t feel good for two weeks.”
To put into perspective the danger of West Nile, Dr. Baxter compares it with the influenza virus, which has killed millions of people. “Influenza is much worse than West Nile virus, but we just live with it and most people do fine,” he said.