Comedian John Tothill reveals what happened when he contracted malaria to fund his Edinburgh Fringe shows

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Louise Thomas

Comedian John Tothill has opened up about his experience of contracting malaria for a drug trial in order to raise funds for his Edinburgh Fringe shows.

Drug trials for malaria can come with a considerable pay cheque – one advert currently posted on the Oxford Vaccine Group website states that participants will be paid up to £9,100 for their time.

But while Tothill had expected to only have a mild case of the disease, he ended up experiencing hallucinations and an extreme fever.

In an op-ed for The Times, Tothill, 27, wrote about how, two years ago, he had come across the medical trial when trying to fund his forthcoming Edinburgh Fringe show: Thank God this Lasts Forever.

Working out that it could cost around £9,000 to live in the city for the month, he decided to sign up as a participant.

Although his high white blood cell count meant he was rejected from FluCamp, Tothill was eligible for more rigorous trials, one of which was a “malaria camp”.

The plan was for Tothill to contract the disease and for his malaria count to reach 500 parasites per millitre of blood. Then, he “would be given a few tablets, make a full recovery, and be sent on my way a wealthy man”.

Instead, after two weeks of feeling fine and having a count of zero, on day 14 of the trial he suddenly started to feel very sick.

He wrote: “The clinicians took my bloods and revealed to me (to the best of my feverish recollections), half nervously and half delightedly, that my malaria count was 28,000. ‘You’ll be fine,’ the doctor smiled. ‘But you’re going to feel pretty awful.’”

John Tothill

John Tothill (Fringe)

Tothill said that “pretty awful” didn’t quite cover it, recalling how he had suffered “the Genghis Khan of fevers”.

“I started having bizarre nightmares that turned into waking hallucinations. Like any good Catholic, mine largely featured being dragged into hell by the devil as punishment for making such a Faustian bargain,” he said.

He continued: “The only times I sat up were to take my medication, which I washed down with Coca-Cola, in my hospital bed… Strangely, the physical pain – these sharp, stabbing feelings in my joints – was somewhat offset by the security of knowing exactly what was wrong with me, and the fact it had been my choice. It’s a peculiar way of experiencing disease.”

Thankfully, within five days of treatment, the comedian started to feel a lot better. “Where would scientists be, I thought, without underemployed creatives?” he wrote.

“It’s a question that probably gets asked the right amount. But, to be honest, it was a genuine privilege to play a tiny part in the development of new treatments for a disease that, shockingly, may have killed half of all human beings who have ever lived.

“Far more importantly, I can only imagine it was the privilege of a lifetime for those scientists to play a significantly larger part in helping me take my stand-up show to the Edinburgh Fringe this year.”

Tothill will perform Thank God this Lasts Forever at the Edinburgh Fringe, from 31 July to 25 August, at the Pleasance theatre.

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