My favorite chart

I lost most of this past weekend to illness. That’s not an uncommon occurrence when I work in sub-Saharan Africa; it’s even common for locals and long-time residents who are used to the bacterial flora. In the two weeks since I got to Lira, two of the seven permanent staff in the office where I’m working have been ill enough to miss work, one with typhoid fever and the other with an unidentified intestinal infection (both were initially treated for malaria, of course). And this is in an office where everyone drinks exclusively bottled water. As a result I was able to directly observe the economic consequences of poor sanitation: not only did we lose the productivity of three people, but there were knock-on effects on the whole rest of the office. I also think there are systemic effects on punctuality and reliability – one of the people who got sick had to meet with a bunch of our enumerators, and he was late due to needing to go to the hospital for treatment (twice a day!) This contributes, I believe, to an equilibrium where nothing ever happens on time anyway so there is no value to being on time (or even within an hour of the scheduled time). If my casual game theory is right, it shouldn’t take too much in the way of random blackouts and illnesses to get everybody pooling on the “show up late/when I feel like it” strategy.

One positive side effect of getting sick was that I re-found my favorite chart, which is available here from the FDA. It lists a range of “foodborne illnesses” and their characteristics, but the name isn’t quite right because I was almost surely infected through water (probably indirectly, through contaminated water getting on food). The less appetizing but more accurate name would be “fecal-oral transmitted diseases”. One great feature about the chart is that it lets you roughly speaking what you might have, based on the symptoms, and then you can use the time before symptom onset to deduce when you probably got it. This is especially nice if it’s a Sunday and the clinics are closed or you just aren’t close to a good one. It also reveals that people often reason falsely about what made them sick: most of these illnesses take long enough to show symptoms that it probably was not the last meal you ate that made you sick, but something prior to that. Great to send people who are traveling to the developing world for the first time.

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