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Jungle parasite strikes Aussie photographer

Award-winning travel photographer, Ignacio Palacios, had a near-miss after Australian doctors struggled to diagnose a parasite he contracted in the Amazon jungle last year.

Ignacio Palacios. Source: Facebook.

In the last six months Ignacio ran photo tours in Scandinavia, India, Peru, Brazil, Bolivia and Ethiopia. That’s five high-risk countries when it comes to contracting rare or exotic illnesses. In November, after returning home, Ignacio developed his first symptoms – skin lesions, which showed no signs of healing.

‘I’m okay now – recovering. You don’t see this parasite at all in Australia and the doctors took a long time to realise what it was,’ the Spanish-born Australian-based photographer informed Inside Imaging. ‘Actually, I had to give them the diagnosis. The doctors thought it was a golden staph infection. After two months of doing tests – skin swabs, and things like that, they couldn’t find anything.

‘I thought maybe it’s not a bacterial infection, but a parasite I caught in Ethiopia. So I went into Google and searched for skin infections from that area and found this parasite I’ve never heard of – Leishmaniasis. I went to the doctor in Kiama said maybe it’s this, and he said “maybe you’re right”!’

Doctors ran three biopsies tests to sample the suspicious tissue. Sure enough it was Leishmaniasis, and after further research Ignacio speculates he contracted the parasite in the Amazon.

‘It’s only found in some regions, with it common in the Amazon, Middle East, and Africa,’ he said. ‘It’s not the doctors fault, they never see this stuff. Maybe the Wollongong Hospital had one or two cases before mine. So it’s rare here, but common over there.’

Leishmaniasis is contracted by sandfly bites. According to the World Health Organisation the female sandfly spreads the parasite by drawing blood from an infected host, carrying an infant Leishmaniasis, and passing it on to the next victim. An incubation period ranging weeks to months means the parasite lays dormant and then ‘undergoes a major transformation’, which results in noticeable symptoms.

‘I got really scared, because the Mucocutaneous leishmaniasis can go into your face, and really destroy everything – your whole mouth and face. I was really scared about that,’ Ignacio said.

He’s not kidding. In extreme cases symptoms include the ‘total destruction of muscous membranes’ around the nose, mouth, and throat; ulceration of the lesions, which can lead to extreme disfigurement and scarring; and in some cases infections can lead to sepsis, a life-threatening condition.

Keep in mind this information comes straight from the wonderful and terrifying world of free online symptom diagnosis, which tends to offer a bleak prognosis for anyone daring to self diagnose.

There are different species of Leishmaniasis, and the parasite can mutate based on the host’s response. Fortunately, Ignacio hasn’t developed any of the brutal aforementioned symptoms, but it hasn’t been a walk in the park either.

Ignacio recently won a category at the Travel Photographer of the Year Awards for this photo, captured at Parque Nacional dos Lençóis Maranhenses in Brazil, where he possibly contracted the parasite. Photo: Ignacio Palacios.

‘The treatment is full on, very toxic. It was going to cost $35,000 because my private health insurance didn’t approve it,’ Ignacio explained. ‘So I went to Wollongong Public Hospital. It’s the same treatment, but not a private hospital. In a week I didn’t see any improvement, and then things started to get better.’

The award-winning travel photographer’s primary income stream is photo tours. He runs six trips a year, spending 12-14 weeks on the road. Doctors told Ignacio he would likely have to cancel his upcoming tour in India, where he will be taking a group to photograph snow leopards and tigers. Fortunately the treatment began to show positive results, and after three more days of treatment Ignacio was given the green light for India.

‘It’s working, but I have to keep an eye on it. The parasite can come back, sometimes in a couple months or even years,’ he said.

It’s not Ignacio’s first time flirting with an exotic illness from the tropics. He was struck down with an awful bug in Madagascar a couple years ago. ‘When you travel through places like South East Asia or India, you always are prepared to get bugs or illnesses. But this one was the most serious,’ he said.

While no one else in the group contracted the parasite, Ignacio recalls being more at risk to insect bites due to wearing shorts and a t-shirt. But he could be far worst off. There are some nasty tropical parasites lurking in the Amazon, and all it takes is the wrong insect bite, bathing in the wrong river, a drop of water in the ear, or eating the wrong meal.

‘You know, I’ve heard stories about friends of friends who have died within two weeks from going in the Amazon,’ he said. ‘Not from this parasite, but there are some out there that are even worst and more rare.’

The public health system cost Ignacio just $40, plus parking. Things are now back on track, and a real relief. After India, Ignacio is scheduled to run a tour alongside Ken Duncan to Svalbard, then Iran in May, South Africa in August and Japan in October.

Click here to check out Ignacio’s photos and upcoming tours.

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