Help! I Caught It Abroad

by Lisa McGarry

This hour-long special follows the work of doctors and nurses at the UK’s only Hospital for Tropical Diseases as they tackle everything from blood-sucking pests to burrowing insects and parasitic worms.

With exclusive behind-the-scenes access the film follows Professor Peter Chiodini and his colleagues as they treat patients, some with near fatal diseases including malaria, and infestations of bugs living under the skin.

The programme features a woman with a potentially dangerous parasite in her brain, a couple with fly larvae living in their scalps and a man losing his sight after being bitten by a sand fly while on holiday in Greece.

Professor Chiodini says: “It’s a very satisfying job because you can sort people out. They’ve got an acute problem, it’s something that you can diagnose correctly, fix for them, and then move on to someone with the next problem.”

The work done at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases, which forms part of University College London Hospitals, is invaluable to doctors across the country as they battle to diagnose and cure patients who have picked up worms and parasites which are often invisible to the naked eye.

Each day a batch of samples arrive at the hospital to be tested. The film follows the doctors and nurses as they unpack blood, urine and faeces samples and find various parasites including a type of worm which lives in the intestine.

Elsewhere at the hospital a sample of tape worms has been taken from a patient and closer examination under the microscope reveals some of them are still alive. The worms come from eating uncooked beef or pork and have been known to grow up to five metres long. It is believed the patient caught them when she worked in Ethiopia ten years ago and has unknowingly had them ever since.

If eaten, the eggs of the pork tapeworm can develop to form a brain cyst. Tests have revealed this patient has now got one on her brain. Her husband explains to the programme that he first noticed something was wrong with her when her speech became unclear and she started shaking and convulsing.

Professor Chiodini reveals that if the parasite is left untreated it could cause the patient brain damage or possibly even kill her. He prescribes medication to stop her fitting and says he will give her further treatment to kill the worm.

One couple, who have recently returned from a trip to Peru, visit the hospital to seek advice about strange bites on their scalps. An assessment reveals they have live Botflies (a type of maggot) living under their skin and unless they are removed they could hatch and begin to reproduce.

The couple have gel applied to the bites, to starve the larvae of oxygen so they come to the surface and can be squeezed out. The cameras capture the gruesome moment the nurses extract the maggots from the couples’ heads – some of them are found to be only days away from turning into flies which would have laid more eggs in their scalps.

In the lab of the hospital Professor Chiodini examines two cysts which have been removed from the lungs of a patient. The cysts, which can grow to the size of a grapefruit, were caused by a parasite caught from sheep and dog faeces and have the potential to rupture causing a fatal anaphylactic shock. Professor Chiodini examines the cysts to see if they will reoccur.

Also being examined in the lab is a microscopic worm found in the bladder of a woman who had been swimming in Lake Malawi. The parasite got into the woman through her skin and laid eggs in her bladder which can be seen hatching under the microscope.

The hospital also sees many walk-in patients who can be treated on the spot. The new Bishop of Carlisle visits the hospital with a tic attached to his leg that he encountered while preaching in a remote part of Argentina. Professor Chiodini has to carefully remove the tic with forceps and examine it under a microscope to make sure none of it was left imbedded in the patient’s thigh.

The programme features the harrowing story of the prison officer who went on a last minute holiday to the Gambia and contracted malaria. Mick Hemming tells the film that he didn’t take anti-malaria medication to prevent malaria but only had four mosquito bites so thought he would be fine.

However, upon returning from his holiday, Mick began to feel feverish, went to bed and woke up in hospital. His vital organs had failed and his blood vessels had collapsed. Doctors had no alternative but to amputate his lower legs and fingers to save his life.

Mick is seen returning to work for the first time since he got ill.

He says: “You have dark moments and sometimes it’s very disheartening and you do say to yourself, ‘Why should I bother?’ But, if you let that get on top of you then you become a victim and I’m certainly no victim.”

And one patient tells the programme how he was bitten by a sand fly while on holiday in Greece and is now infected by a parasite which is attacking his major organs and even his eyes.

Specialist registrar Emma Wall says: “It’s actually the first case in the western world, that we can find, of this particular parasite actually getting into the eye and no one has ever treated it in a hospital setting like us before. We’re trying to preserve his eye sight, his vision is definitely deteriorating and this is an attempt to preserve his sight.”

The patient is given drugs to try to kill the bug but the dangerous side effects mean his liver and kidneys stop functioning properly. He is taken off the medication a week early. Initial tests give positive results that the medication was working and the parasite has gone from his legs.

The patient is allowed home and will return to the hospital in a month for further tests on his eyes.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009, 10:35PM – 11:35PM