An investigation by the Peace Corps’ Inspector General has determined that the death last year of a suburban Chicago woman in the tiny island nation of Comoros was due to the botched diagnosis of an especially lethal case of malaria.
Twenty-four year old Peace Corps volunteer Bernice Heiderman of suburban Inverness died Jan. 9, 2018 in Comoros, a tiny nation off the coast of Mozambique. The agency’s inspector general says she was stricken with the “deadliest species of malaria when left untreated, and the dominant species in Comoros.”
Despite the fact that the Peace Corps’ medical guidelines direct medical officers to assume that all volunteers serving in malaria-prone areas could become infected with the disease, the IG report says the medical officer in Comoros did not consider a diagnosis of malaria at any point, from Jan. 2, 2018, until Heiderman’s death seven days later.
“Malaria test kits and treatment medication were available in Comoros to assist in diagnosing and treating Heiderman throughout her illness, but were not used,” the report says. “Our review found that if Heiderman had been diagnosed with malaria when her initial symptoms indicated a possible malaria infection, and had she received timely treatment, she could have made a rapid, full recovery.”
The report further states that Heiderman had not been taking her required malaria prevention medications for several months prior to her death, and that the local medical unit had been unaware of that fact. But the investigation revealed that the on-duty medical officer had limited training in infectious diseases, and believed malaria required presence of a high fever, something Heiderman apparently did not have.
“(The medical officer) never suspected malaria as a possible diagnosis,” the report stated, adding that he remained “anchored to his original diagnosis of a headache or gastrointestinal disorder, “up until the evening before her death.”
Heiderman had served as an English teacher at a middle school close to the capital city of Moroni since August 2016.
The IG report states that the Peace Corps conducted a thorough investigation to determine if Heiderman was murdered.
“This investigation was related to concerns that Heiderman had expressed through text messages to her family and friends stating that she thought she was being poisoned,” the report states. “A pathologist conducted an autopsy toxicology test that did not uncover the type of poison that had been originally considered.”
A former volunteer at the Field Museum of Natural History, Heiderman was a graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago.