Wednesday was malaria day. I dreaded Wednesday. I dreaded Wednesday so much that I only felt really great on Thursday and Friday. By Saturday I would begin to develop that in the pit of your stomach apprehension about the approaching week which of course would include that horrible day. Malaria is caused by a mosquito-borne parasite that has wreaked havoc in the tropics for centuries. The disease causes flu-like symptoms such as chills and fever which can come and go for some time and may cause complications or even death. In Sri Lanka, Malaria tracking and eradication efforts began early in the 1900s. There were several large scale epidemics, including one in the 1930s, that claimed tens of thousands of lives. By the early 1960s, with the widespread use of pesticides and the use of mosquito nets to prevent bites, great strides had been made in reducing outbreaks. When we arrived in the early 1980s much progress had been made in the eradication of malaria in Sri Lanka, but there were still cases.
As we were to travel all across the country, a consistent course of prophylactic drugs was prudent. However, no matter where my parents searched, it was difficult to obtain doses that were appropriate for their two daughters. All they could find were giant pink pills that contained more than double the quantity prescribed for Janelle and me. We heard rumors of a liquid children’s version available in some pharmacies in Europe, and, while visiting Switzerland, Mom and Dad made a special trip to France to try to obtain some, but were unable. So, the pink pills were all that we had. At first this didn’t seem an insurmountable issue. We would simply cut the pretty pills in half. They looked like large, brightly colored, sugar-coated offerings from the Easter Bunny. But inside the fuchsia orbs lurked the most foul-tasting bitterness. I had just learned to swallow pills – practicing on pieces of bread – but every time I tried to wash down the malaria medication I would gag, my tongue rebelling against the bitter pill. We tried masking the harsh taste by burying the pill in applesauce, chocolate, ice cream or marshmallows or grinding it up in orange juice, honey or maple syrup, but nothing helped get it down. Each week I would psych myself up for the challenge – it couldn’t be as bad as I remember. Did it really taste like licking pine sap and bark mulch off of the bottom of your shoe? Week after week, the answer was “no”! It was worse than that!
After weeks of imaginative malaria pill food pairings, the best strategy we came up with was grinding the offensive chloroquine in a small amount of warm water, holding my nose, swallowing and willing myself to get it down. It doesn’t seem a task that should cause so much angst in a ten year old, but it was truly the bane of my existence for quite some time. It took such concentration to refrain from vomiting up the distasteful liquid that I asked my parents to leave the room to avoid seeing the combination of annoyance and sympathy in their eyes. For probably six months I hated, no, anxiously loathed, Wednesday.
Every time we would welcome a foreign visitor there was the smallest hope that they would be able to bring the elusive children’s liquid anti-malarial drug, but we never were able to find it. One dreaded Wednesday in Kandy, I simply could not tolerate the lukewarm concoction and dumped the offensive liquid into the storm drain behind our house. Surely one week of missing the pill wouldn’t be that bad? But Wednesday came again so fast that I repeated the rebellious action. More than once, our gardener, Wilson, seeing me struggle with the putrid, gritty, warm liquid, drank the fluid for me. But, more weeks than not I watered the nearby bamboo stand rather than swallow the nasty stuff. The guilt of secretly dumping my medicine each week was not as bad to me as the taste of the acrid tea. So I spent half of my time in Sri Lanka unprotected from malaria. I kept that secret from my parents for many years – luckily, malaria free years.