It was inevitable. My boss had warned me that over 80% of the population has it, but are asymptomatic. That fact still didn’t make it any easier to welcome hundreds of thousands of extra single-celled organisms into my intestines. Starting last Thursday, the parasite known as Blastocystis hominis found a warm and welcoming home in my body, rendering me a servant to my bowels. How it works here in Guatemala is that you take your own fecal matter sample to the laboratory. It doesn’t matter to them if it’s in the cute blue sterile, air-tight cup. They’ll take anything ranging from your old salsa container to your old tin of mints. When I went hobbling over the the nearest lab, this was news to me. I was searching for the cute blue sterile, air-tight cup. Just another pleasant difference in living in a developing country.
While my body had certainly already verified the presence of some outsider, I had to wait until the next morning to receive my results. Here’s a condensed version of the 1-page results print out: Blastocystis hominis (+++), where the (+++) signaled an abundance of a substance. Exactly how did I get Blastocystis? And is it even the cause of my problems? According to the CDC, the exact causes of transmission are unknown. They go on to say there is a connection between poor sanitation and hygiene and the number of people with the parasite. “The risk of infection may increase through: ingesting contaminated food or water, exposure to a day care environment, or exposure to animals.”
Besides exposure to a day care, anyone who’s alive and eating should recognize that these are pretty common encounters in everyday life. I called my boss, who knew just what I should take to bid the parasites on their journey to another host. I then called the local pharmacy and had the anti-parasitic delivered straight to my door in less than thirty minutes. This is all without the approval of any doctor. How different this situation would have been in the United States. Good? Bad? The fact of the matter was that it was certainly faster and cheaper than anything that I could have done back home. With a test at Q30 (4 USD) and the treatment at Q111 (about 16 USD), I am now parasite free for a mere 20 bucks (Or am I?). That was my co-pay for a doctor’s visit in the States.
In researching my parasite, I came across the studies that helped the CDC form their opinions on Blastocystis. The first was from Herwaldt, et. al., 1994, a study entitled “Infections with Intestinal Parasites in Peace Corps Volunteers in Guatemala.” The conclusion of the study stated that while parasites were a common part of Peace Corps Volunteers intestines, it was not necessarily the cause of their diarrhea. Just because I had Blastocystis, it wasn’t necessarily the cause of my problems. The study ended with a remark that I especially enjoy, “health-care workers should not assume a diarrheal illness is caused by a parasite simply because the illness was acquired in a developing country.” I could have picked this up in any country, developed or not, around the world.
The follow-up study by the same authors is entitled “Multiyear Prospective Study of Intestinal Parasites in a Cohort of Peace Corps Volunteers in Guatemala.” In terms of my parasite, they once again urged caution in attributing symptoms to Blastocystis hominis. Although my adventures with Blastocystis hominis may be over for now, it looks like I have more work do to to solve my other intestinal problems. Watch out for your salsa containers.
Laura Stephenson is a recent environmental science graduate from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, focusing in environmental and community health. She is currently studying Spanish in Antigua, Guatemala. Laura writes the “After” Life of an Environmental Studies Student series, telling stories of the activities and endeavors of environmental science and studies students after graduation.