What to do when you have get a mysterious spotted fever: improve Wikipedia!

By Rick Jelliffe
January 10, 2011

On the day of New Year's Eve, I was up at my parent's banana farm on the Mid North Coast of New South Wales, Australia, mowing on their baby tractor. I brushed past some trees. A few day's later I noticed two bite marks, which I supposed from their separation and size was the bite of a narky snake, which I then supposed to be non-toxic, since I was feeling fine apart from a swollen occipital gland (which I never knew I had before this.)

A couple of further days later, and I awoke after a sudden heavy night of fever and chills to find myself covered in red spots. My doctor seemed a little disappointed that none of my tests came back positive: not the measles, not the German measles, not syphilis, not some HIV nasty: nothing convenient.

My dear old Dad after a few days suggested it was Queensland tick typhus, aka Spotted Fever, which is unknown in Sydney but happens up North in the hotter areas. (It is somewhat related to the far more serious Rocky Mountain spotted fever.) I knew that the first thing my doctor would do was quickly check Wikipedia, to see what it said, so I went and checked the entries myself, to fix them up so they would be helpful for him.

It turned out that the entry for typhus didn't link to the entry for Queensland Tick Typhus nor to the alias of Australian Tick Typhus nor to Spotted Fever. There were few links to extraneous material, such as from our government health departments. So I added the links.

The most useful description on the web was the most unsatisfactory: a quaintly phrased page, perhaps from some automatic translation or obfuscation system.

So I go to my doctor (who has saved my life before, an excellent clinician) and announce like a magician pulling a rabbit from my hat "Rickettsia australis": he immediately checks Wikipedia, finds it credible, then looks through his treatment handbooks for the current officially preferred treatment in Australia. (The treatment is doxycycline an old anti-biotic.) I hope the spots go soon, they are fading now!

I thought it was a modern kind of consultation: the doctor using his skills and doing all the tests, and the patient confronted with a mysterious ailment getting local information and making sure the Wikipedia links were coherent. It is a good way to be more pro-active in getting a diagnosis!

What it also means is that everyone else who has had Queensland Tick Typhus (I don't know if it more than 50 to 100 people per year) has failed to fix up the Wikipedia entries: in this day and age, this seems to border on being positively anti-social behaviour, I must say! It is not the kind of thing that enters into one's mind, when one has spotted fever, looking like some old lady's wallpaper, perhaps... Still, Wikipedia is a great way of getting knowledge about local pathogens available outside their areas of infection.

If you get some exotic illness, and you know what it is, make sure the Wikipedia entries have good links to credible sites! The spots you save may be your own.

Government health departments need to be making their health information available on the web in the permanent URLs that Wikipedia can link to. And they should be co-ordinating with Wikipedia to provide editorial services to make links or check articles to reputable material. (Indeed, I think that health information is so important, governments should legislate that Google search results and Wikipedia entries on important ailments and medicines should provide links to approved material (in the fashion of sponsored links) by each particular country's health services, in addition to the community or social material. )

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