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Catching something other than the flight home

by Zoe Reeves Flight Safety Officer

You’re down route in a tropical part of the world with a few hours to spare before it’s time to get back in the cockpit. With legs still stiff from the long-haul flight, it can be easy to check in your bags and set straight off on a limbering walk, forgetting the real dangers that can be found hiding in tropical environments.

In humid climates, tropical diseases are rife and can be fatal, especially those transmitted by mosquitos. For pilots spending days or even just hours in different tropical climates around the world, it’s important to know the risks involved, and how best to prevent yourself from danger.

In some of the below cases, symptoms won’t show until weeks, or even months later, so it’s vital that you take precautions if you know you’re going to be down route in a particularly tropical or humid destination.

Monarch pilot Nigel Webster knows all about the importance of taking precautions, after he contracted dengue fever while downroute in Tobago. His brother-in-law David also had some unusual symptoms – he had contracted chikungunya.

“David told me he had come out in a rash, his temperature had shot up, and all his joints ached. He felt very weak and his temperature was now fluctuating wildly” said Nigel.

“A few hours later, his wife had just taken him some food when she heard a crash. She returned to find the food all over the floor. David had collapsed and was having a kind of fit. She dialled 999 and an ambulance arrived and took him to hospital where he remained for three days.”

“It looked like a similar fate awaited me. I was due to fly, but the speed of David’s collapse meant I would be unsafe to drive, let alone fly.”

With recent reports showing Dengue fever rearing its ugly head in Madeira, we’ve pulled together some information on some of the most common and dangerous infections.

Dengue fever

Dengue fever is a viral infection spread by mosquitos which, unusually, bite during the day. Aside from being found in its usual places (south east Asia, the Caribbean, South America, and Africa), recent reports have also confirmed that dengue is present in parts of Europe including Madeira.

Dengue causes flu like symptoms and lasting anywhere between two and seven days, following an incubation period of four to 10 days after the bite. Typical symptoms are a high temperature and fever (40°) usually accompanied by at least two of the following:

  • Headaches
  • Pain behind eyes
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Swollen glands
  • Joint, bone or muscle pains
  • Rash

There is no widely available vaccine for dengue and treatment is mainly symptomatic.

Chikungunya virus

Similarly to Dengue, Chikungunya is a viral disease transmitted by infected mosquitos. The virus is present in Africa, Asia and India, but outbreaks have since been recorded in France, Italy and Croatia.

Chikungunya can be characterised by an abrupt onset of fever and debilitating joint pain, which can last months, or even years. Other symptoms include headaches, nausea, muscle pain and rash. The proximity of mosquito breeding sites to human habitation is a significant risk factor for chikungunya, so it’s important to be careful when near stagnant water and other mosquito hotspots.


Malaria is one of the most serious tropical diseases, in some cases proving fatal if left untreated. However, most cases of malaria can be avoided by awareness and prevention. It takes only one mosquito bite for malaria to be contracted, and there is currently no vaccine against the disease.

Symptoms include fever, sweats and chills, headaches, vomiting, muscle pain, and diarrhoea, and usually appear seven – 18 days after becoming infected.

If you experience any of these symptoms upon returning from operating to a tropical destination, make sure you seek immediate medical advice to ensure the infection does not worsen.


For most people, contracting the Zika virus is a very mild infection and isn’t harmful. However, for pregnant women, the consequences can be far more serious. Unlike malaria, the mosquitos that spread Zika are most active during the day, meaning no time of the day can be considered safe from being infected, especially if you are in a high risk area.

Symptoms of Zika include rash, itching all over the body, fever, headache, joint pain, conjunctivitis, and pain behind the eyes.

Yellow fever

A serious viral infection spread by mosquitos, Yellow Fever is found in sub-Saharan Africa, South America and parts of the Caribbean. The symptoms occur in two stages, although most people will make a full recovery after the first stage.

The initial symptoms, which develop three to six days after infection include headaches, nausea, vomiting, fever, and loss of appetite. Around 15% of people go on to develop further, more serious symptoms, including jaundice, kidney failure, and bleeding from the mouth, nose, or eyes. This is when yellow fever may become fatal.

Prevention and reducing the risk of infection

The most important thing you can do to lower the risk of contracting any tropical disease is to try and avoid being bitten by mosquitos completely, which can be done in a number of ways.

  • Wear loose but protective clothing, such as long sleeved shirts, long trousers and shoes rather than sandals. It’s important to know that mosquitos can still bite through tight fitting clothes
  • Use insect repellent, preferably products containing 50% DEET, and rub these well into the skin or as directed.
  • Sleep under a mosquito net, preferably one treated with suitable insecticide.
  • Avoid areas of standing water. Mosquitos are often attracted to water, especially stagnant water and during hot months. On top of this, most species lay their eggs in stagnant water too.

It’s also vital to ensure your vaccinations are kept up to date to avoid all risk of contraction.

For more information and advice on the diseases mentioned in this post, or any others, please visit the World Health Organization’s website – www.who.int.