June 22, 2018
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Cyclists see why vaccines matter


Editor’s note: Blue Hill native Levi Bridges and friend Ellery Althaus of North Truro, Mass., have embarked on a 10,000-mile cycling trip across Asia and Europe. Bridges is filing weekly updates for the BDN.

We had a problem, and only one person could help. Her name was Maria, the study abroad director of the Far Eastern National University in Vladivostok, Russia, where we had taken a Russian language course before embarking on our bicycle trip across Eurasia.

“We need a series of shots against Japanese encephalitis,” we told her.

Japanese encephalitis is a rare tick-borne disease existent in Central Asia. Transmission of the disease is extremely rare but, if contracted, can result in severe sickness, nerve damage and even paralysis.

Maria’s eyebrows furrowed perplexedly as she picked up the telephone. In my limited Russian, I made out the following: “I have two Americans here who need a shot against Japanese syphilis,” she said self-consciously.

“No, Japanese encephalitis,” we corrected her.

“Ahh, I see!” she exclaimed with a relieved look as the entire office broke into laughter.

Vaccination against the disease requires two shots. We received the first one in Vladivostok, the second we would get after biking 500 miles north to the city of Khabarovsk. Beginning our trip through rural Russia without the full vaccination was worrisome. In Vladivostok, we had gone hiking one afternoon with some Russian students. After veering off the trail for an instant, Ellery found a tick on his pants. The snow had barely melted, but the disease-bearing insects were already present.

After 10 days of paranoid cycling, a nurse in a Khabarovsk health clinic gave us bad news.

“Sorry, I won’t give you the vaccination,” she said. “The second shot severely weakens your immune system for several weeks. Even catching a small cold can make you very sick. I do not want to be responsible if you become ill while traveling in remote areas.”

Momentarily, we panicked. Camping for months in Siberia, and daily coming into possible contact with ticks, seemed like a death sentence.

Finally, we found a private clinic which agreed to give us the shot. Suddenly, I wondered if getting a shot that wipes out your immune system was more dangerous than not getting it. That morning, I had read a news report entitled: “Swine flu cases reported in Europe and Asia.”

Suddenly, the nurse entered the room.

“The injection is ready,” she said.

The vaccination complete, we left Khabarovsk two days later. That day, I noticed Ellery was uncharacteristically lagging behind. Days ago, I remembered him complaining of an upset stomach.

“My stomach has really started hurting again,” he confessed later, “I’d like to quit early today.”

That evening, we reached the small town of Volochaevka. My eyes widened as dirty children peered from the sides of flimsily constructed houses, some just covered in tarpaper. We had now entered that mysterious section of the country where the Russian Far East, the stretch of land along the Pacific coast, melts into the vastness of Siberia. Each day, the surroundings would become more remote, the villages increasingly sparse and impoverished.

Inquiring for a place to stay, townspeople directed us to the train station. The building was a direct reflection of excessive Soviet pride in the Trans-Siberian railroad; behind its shabby exterior and peeling paint, we found the inside decorated with elaborate mosaics, a tile floor, and fountain. The workers gave us the key to the building and let us camp on the floor.

The kind gesture was a life saver; as I slept, Ellery’s condition worsened, intestinal troubles forcing him to make frequent trips outside to use the outhouse — indoor plumbing here is rare outside of the cities. At daybreak, I found my riding partner incredibly sick.

“I’m in a lot of pain, and I can’t stop going to the bathroom,” he admitted.

Recalling Ellery’s upset stomach days before, the cautionary words of the nurse in Khabarovsk replayed in my head: “Even a small sickness can make you very ill.”

Ellery’s condition did not improve. We pushed on to the nearby city of Birobidzhan. There, the U.S. Consulate in Vladivostok assigned us a translator, and we drove to a nearby hospital. The conditions were grim: the pavement on the hospital grounds turned to a dirt road, the hospital itself resembled an abandoned factory. I was forced to wait outside while my friend saw a doctor. I sat watching several stray dogs fighting and smoke from a nearby factory curlicue into the sky. Bits of ash settled on my jacket.

The doctors believed Ellery had received a stomach illness exacerbated by a weak immune system. They prescribed antibiotics and after a lengthy rest we at last continued onwards.

In the 21st century, modern medicine has made world travel safer than ever. In comparison with Spanish conquistadors or the fur traders who first explored the land which is now Russia, we face minimal threats. Today, vaccinations against deadly diseases and medical treatment are often merely a short trip away. In more undeveloped regions of the world, the difference between the past and modernity is more tenuous. It is easier to recognize your mortality here; we are not the invincible creatures which modern medicine often leads us to believe.

Healthier and with this thought in mind, we continue onward. Further into the wilderness.

Next week:e Russian wildfires.

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