The Most Dangerous Thing You Will Ever Encounter While Travelling

published by Bren

Last updated: May 31, 2020

It’s no secret that the road is filled with countless hazards that can totally derail your perfect holiday.

There’s the guy who hustles you as soon as you come out of arrivals in the airport.

There’s the taxi driver who’s planning to rip you off, or worse, drive you into a dark alley and demand your wallet.

There’s the dirty bunk bed in your hostel dorm that’s waiting to infest your entire suitcase with bed bugs.

There’s the lady at the street stall who didn’t wash her lettuce properly, just waiting to serve you a salad that’s going to give you food poisoning.

There’s the pickpocket loitering around the bus stop waiting for you to put your bag down so he can nick your passport and sell it to some drug smuggling mule for a few thousand dollars.

There’s the scantily clad girl in the bar waiting to slip a roofie into your beer so she can clean your pockets out once you collapse in the bathroom.

There’s the tag team of petty thieves waiting to rob you at knife point outside the subway exit when you come home from the club at night.

But which one is the worst of them all?

Is it the sex crazed murderer loitering the streets? The town pedophile? The team of drug dealers trying to sneak a few kilos of cocaine into your backpack?


These guys are nothing more than mere inconveniences.

The truth is, the road holds something far more sinister than all these people combined. Something that will murder your entire family in cold blood without even blinking an eye. And most people won’t even see it coming.

That’s right, this little vixen hides in the background, and when you least expect it, sneaks up on you and launches her brutal attack. She’ll stab you in the back, come at you with all her evil friends, she’ll even massacre you in your sleep.

I know, totally ruthless, with no shame at all.

Wanna know who it is?

I’ll tell you.

Your biggest enemy on the road, my friends, is this:

1503042055_70fc0c345d_bPhoto: tanakawho@Flickr

That’s right.


These little fuckers are responsible for more deaths than all the wars in history combined.

With a little nip on the thigh, they’ll gladly pass you one of world’s many incurable diseases. They’ll leave you with a few paralysed limbs. They’ll leave you rolling around on the hospital floor, wishing for someone to put you out of your misery. These tiny little creatures cause more human suffering than any nuclear bomb, genocide, terrorist attack, famine or natural disaster could ever hope to inflict.

Don’t believe me?

Here’s just a few of the goodies they have in store for you…


What is it?

According to the WHO, around 200 million people are infected with malaria every year and around 600,000 of those infections result in death.

It is caused by the Plasmodium parasite, which is spread to humans by the bite of infected Anopheles mosquitoes.

The WHO estimates that in 2014, one child will die from malaria every minute. Most deaths occur in sub Saharan Africa, but the disease is common in the Americas and Asia as well.

It’s one of the most common diseases people get from mosquito bites while travelling; an estimated 30,000 travellers contract the disease every year. There is no vaccine, but some strains can be treated.

What happens to you?

“Symptoms appear seven days or more (usually 10–15 days) after the infective mosquito bite. The first symptoms – fever, headache, chills and vomiting – may be mild and difficult to recognize as malaria. If not treated within 24 hours, P. falciparum malaria can progress to severe illness often leading to death. Children with severe malaria frequently develop one or more of the following symptoms: severe anaemia, respiratory distress in relation to metabolic acidosis, or cerebral malaria. In adults, multi-organ involvement is also frequent.” – WHO

Let me tell you, I’ve met a good handful of people who’ve had the pleasure of enduring this disease, and trust me, it doesn’t look like fun.

Where can you catch it?

Malaria is prevalent throughout South and Southeast Asia, sub Saharan Africa, the northern half of South America and parts of Central America:

malaria from mosquito bites while travelling

Map source: WHO. You can read the WHO’s fact sheet on malaria here.

Dengue Fever

What is it?

Dengue fever is a tropical disease spread by bites of the Aedes aegypti mosquito.

Until recently, there were four recognised strains, and a fifth one has since been discovered. Contracting one strain does not give you immunity to the other four. The two Asian strains are considered the more serious of the five.

Currently there is no vaccine, and no direct treatment, meaning once you contract it, it is a matter of being monitored in hospital and staying hydrated while you tough it out (ask Wandering Earl, it’s not fun). This is a very common disease people catch from mosquito bites while travelling, most often around the tropics and the equator.

According to WHO, around 100 million people are infected every year, and this is expected to rise.

What happens to you?

Common symptoms of the disease are high fever, severe headache, eye pain, nausea, vomiting, full body rash and muscle and joint pains.

More severe symptoms are vomiting blood, respiratory distress, extreme fatigue, organ impairment, severe abdominal pain, and death.

Due to the very heavy sweating, dengue fever often causes complications from dehydration.

Incubation period is around 4 days, and symptoms last for up to a week.

Where can you catch it?

Dengue is prevalent throughout South and Central America, and various countries in Africa. It is also very common in Southeast Asian countries, such as Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines.

dengue fever from mosquito bites while travelling

Map source: WHO. You can read WHO’s fact sheet on Dengue here.


What is it?

Scientifically known as lymphatic filariasis, this disease occurs when infected mosquitoes transmit a filarial parasite with their bite. It’s one of the lesser known diseases from mosquitoes but still reasonably common.

The parasites compromise the lymphatic system, which leads to disfigurement and abnormal enlargement of body parts which cause both severe pain and permanent disability.

Around 120 million people are currently infected, with 40 million suffering from severe disfigurement and disability. Preventive medicines are now being distributed by WHO on a large scale, but for advanced infections there is no cure.

What happens to you?

“The majority of infections are asymptomatic, showing no external signs of infection. These asymptomatic infections still cause damage to the lymphatic system and the kidneys as well as alter the body’s immune system.

When lymphatic filariasis develops into chronic conditions, it leads to lymphoedema (tissue swelling) or elephantiasis (skin/tissue thickening) of limbs and hydrocele (scrotal swelling). Involvement of breasts and genital organs is common. Such body deformities lead to social stigma, as well as financial hardship from loss of income and increased medical expenses. The socioeconomic burdens of isolation and poverty are immense.” -WHO

Elephantiasis of the legs. Photo: CDC.

Where can you catch it?

Elephantiasis is present in Brazil, most of sub Saharan Africa, and throughout South and Southeast Asia:

Elephantiasis from mosquito bites while travelling

Map source: WHO. You can read the WHO’s fact sheet on Elephantiasis here.

Yellow Fever

What is it?

Yellow fever is a virus spread by the bite of the female in several species of mosquitoes. It’s one of the well known diseases from mosquitoes and many countries have border control checks against it.

Approximately 200,000 infections are recorded every year, of which around 30,000 result in death.

Only supportive treatment is available, meaning the symptoms are treated directly, but not the virus itself. Luckily, there is a vaccine available which all travellers should get, and many countries in Latin America and Africa will request your vaccination certificate before you can enter the country.

Interestingly, despite the availability of a vaccine, yellow fever deaths and infections continue to rise each year.

What happens to you?

“Once contracted, the virus incubates in the body for 3 to 6 days, followed by infection that can occur in one or two phases. The first, “acute”, phase usually causes fever, muscle pain with prominent backache, headache, shivers, loss of appetite, and nausea or vomiting. Most patients improve and their symptoms disappear after 3 to 4 days.

However, 15% of patients enter a second, more toxic phase within 24 hours of the initial remission. High fever returns and several body systems are affected. The patient rapidly develops jaundice and complains of abdominal pain with vomiting. Bleeding can occur from the mouth, nose, eyes or stomach. Once this happens, blood appears in the vomit and faeces. Kidney function deteriorates. Half of the patients who enter the toxic phase die within 10 to 14 days, the rest recover without significant organ damage.” -WHO

Where can you catch it?

Yellow fever risk areas are scattered throughout Africa and South America:

Yellow fever from mosquito bites while travelling
Yellow fever from mosquito bites while travelling

Map source: WHO. You can read the WHO’s fact sheet on yellow fever here.


What is it?

I first became aware of this disease when I met a guy in the Philippines who’d been living with it for about 8 months. In his own words, “he was a vegetable” for several weeks, unable to even lift his arms to wash his own face.

Even months later, he was still suffering, and every now and then would spasm violently for a couple of seconds, before letting out a long sigh of defeat. This disease, my friends, is no joke.

Chikungunya is spread by the bite of the Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes – the same species that transmits Dengue Fever. It also shares similar symptoms with Dengue.

Over 2 million cases have been reported since 2005, and a recent outbreak has been sweeping through the Caribbean (also aiding a spread to the US). There is no vaccine and no cure.

What happens to you?

“Chikungunya is characterized by an abrupt onset of fever frequently accompanied by joint pain. Other common signs and symptoms include muscle pain, headache, nausea, fatigue and rash. The joint pain is often very debilitating, but usually lasts for a few days or may be prolonged to weeks.

Most patients recover fully, but in some cases joint pain may persist for several months, or even years. Occasional cases of eye, neurological and heart complications have been reported, as well as gastrointestinal complaints. Serious complications are not common, but in older people, the disease can contribute to the cause of death. Often symptoms in infected individuals are mild and the infection may go unrecognized, or be misdiagnosed in areas where dengue occurs.” -WHO

Where can you catch it?

Chikungunya risk areas are sub Saharan Africa, South and Southeast Asia, parts of West Asia and the Caribbean:

chikungunya  from mosquitoes while travelling

Map source: WHO. You can read the WHO’s fact sheet on Chikungunya here.

West Nile Virus

What is it?

West Nile Virus, which gets its name from the region it was first discovered, is a mosquito-transmitted virus which has had several outbreaks in the last 50 years, the biggest being in Greece, Israel, Romania, Russia and USA.

It has also been commonly reported in West Asia, the Middle East and Australia. It has the ability to cause serious neurological disease and death, and there is no vaccine or cure available.

What happens to you?

“Infection with WNV is either asymptomatic (no symptoms) in around 80% of infected people, or can lead to West Nile fever or severe West Nile disease.

About 20% of people who become infected with WNV will develop West Nile fever. Symptoms include fever, headache, tiredness, and body aches, nausea, vomiting, occasionally with a skin rash (on the trunk of the body) and swollen lymph glands.

The symptoms of severe disease (also called neuroinvasive disease, such as West Nile encephalitis or meningitis or West Nile poliomyelitis) include headache, high fever, neck stiffness, stupor, disorientation, coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness, and paralysis. It is estimated that approximately 1 in 150 persons infected with the West Nile virus will develop a more severe form of disease.” -WHO

Where can you catch it?

WNV is commonly found in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, North America and West Asia. The largest outbreaks have occurred in Greece, Israel, Romania, Russia and USA.

Because birds are the natural hosts, outbreaks tend to occur on major birds migratory routes.

In its original range, WNV was prevalent throughout Africa, parts of Europe, Middle East, West Asia, and Australia. After being introduced to the USA in 1999, the virus has spread and is now widely established from Canada to Venezuela.

Source: WHO. You can read the WHO West Nile Virus fact sheet here.

Japanese Encephalitis

What is it?

Japanese Encephalitis (JE) is a virus from the same family as Dengue, Yellow Fever and West Nile Virus.

It was first discovered in Japan in 1871, and 68,000 infections are reported each year, of which 20,000 result in death.

It is transmitted by the bite of the Culex species of mosquito. Unlike many of the other diseases from mosquitoes, humans do not actually act as a host of JE – rather, it is pigs and water birds that carry the virus and pass this onto mosquitoes which then spread this to humans. For this reason, you are at greater risk when living in conditions where you are in close proximity to these hosts (rural areas/farms).

There is no direct treatment or cure, but several vaccines are available.

What happens to you?

“Most JE virus infections are mild (fever and headache) or without apparent symptoms, but approximately 1 in 250 infections results in severe disease characterized by rapid onset of high fever, headache, neck stiffness, disorientation, coma, seizures, spastic paralysis and death. The case-fatality rate can be as high as 30% among those with disease symptoms.

Of those who survive, 20%–30% suffer permanent intellectual, behavioural or neurological problems such as paralysis, recurrent seizures or the inability to speak.” -WHO

Where can you catch it?

JE is considered a risk almost throughout Asia:

Japanese Encephalitis from mosquitoes while travelling

Map source: WHO. You can read the WHO fact sheet on Japanese Encephalitis here.

I wish I could say that’s it, but it’s not. The evil of the mosquito extends far beyond what I’ve outlined above, but I think I’ve covered the main ones.

How to stay disease free and prevent mosquito bites while travelling:

Visit your travel health clinic

Before you go travelling anywhere, talk to either your GP or the travel health clinic in your city. They should be up to date on what’s going on in the world and can advise you best.

Where possible, get the vaccinations that are available (such as yellow fever), and use the preventive medicines available for things like malaria.

Again, your doc will have all the information you need. They’ll also advise you on other non-mosquito related vaccinations, which might be just as important.

Prevention is the best cure!

Your best defense is to simply not get bitten.

That means wearing closed shoes, sleeping in mosquito nets (check for holes!), wearing long sleeves and long pants where possible, and always wearing mosquito repellent when outdoors (especially at night). Also, when you see a mosquito don’t just wave it away, smush that little bastard!

– Because most people will shower every day and wash off the repellent, a good tip is to also rub deet on your hats, shoes, backpacks, jackets etc. That way, even if you forget to put your repellent on one day, you may still have a bit of protection from all your gear. I also quite like mosquito coils and candles – if you plan on sitting outside for the night, light one up.

Be extra vigilant with mosquitoes at sea level

At higher altitudes many of these disease carrying mosquitoes can’t survive, but down at sea level they are rampant, which is where most of these viruses are prevalent.

Sleeping in an air conditioned room also helps – mosquitoes don’t like the cold.

Seek medical care quickly if you have symptoms

If you feel like you may have caught something, make sure you get to a hospital asap.

If you have travel insurance, the cost shouldn’t be an issue. For many of the above listed viruses, getting treatment early will be a big factor in making a full and fast recovery

This is why travel insurance is so essential. If you do contract anything, medical evacuation and a lengthy hospital stay is very possible, which could run you into the tens of thousands of dollars, or more. Travel insurance is absolutely essential if you don’t want to be returning home with huge medical bills. I have a very thorough guide to getting the best travel insurance here.

Remember, if they can’t bite you, they can’t hurt you.

Stay safe and good luck!

Do you have any horror stories you owe to mosquitoes? How close were you to dying? Let me know in the comments below.

Feature image:  Lnk.Si @ Flickr

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  1. Well written article Brent. I really hate mosquitoes. Everyday it makes people suffer and breaks people’s hearts. My cousin who was 6 died because of them. She was such a cute girl. She was well loved by everyone even our neighbors because she was extremely polite, kind hearted and adorable. It’s hard to find such kids nowadays. I really hope she is fine wherever she is and I hope less people will die because of those little bastards 🙁

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