The airfield around Kpong, few kilometres from the Volta Lake in the northern sector of Ghana, Patricia Mawuli, pilot and co-founder of Medicine on the Move (MoM), from the local NGO, is preparing her plane for take-off. She is one of four health workers who fly weekly to isolated areas around the Volta lake to raise awareness of the dangers of diseases like schistosomiasis, also known as bilharzia. Schistosomiasis is a parasitic disease caused by a flatworm that enters the skin. It is mostly found in infected water. Snails common in Lake Volta often act as an intermediary host for the worms before they get into humans body and then eat away at the internal organs. The symptoms include fever and passing blood in urine and faeces. They are often diagnosed very late. Bilharzia can block children’s growth and affect their cognitive development.
The disease is classified as a neglected tropical disease by the World Health Organization, millions of people across Africa, Asia and South America are said to be infected, but very less percentage are being treated, according to a research scientist in the Neglected Tropical Diseases department of the World Health Organization (WHO).
WHO is trying to help governments put in place more effective prevention programmes by training community health workers like Mawuli in Ghana, pushing hygiene and public health awareness, and negotiating drug donations with major suppliers around the Volta lake in Ghana. Many people are unaware of the disease or its symptoms, said the MoM’s co-founder, Jonathan Porter. Most affected men use to have blood in their urine as a sign of virility but some doctors say it is a sign that the disease has eaten its way through the lower intestine.
Each week MoM air-drops leaflets in four languages over villages, particularly schools, for teachers to explain the contents informing people about how they can catch, prevent, and treat the illness. Air drops are considered the most effective way of reaching most hundreds of isolated communities around the Volta lake, especially where many of the inhabitants a bit far away from the main roads.
Ghana has made progress in controlling bilharzia with its national prevention programme, run in partnership with USAID, WHO and NGOs. In the year 2008 about 300,000 children were treated successfully but escalated to 1.7 million in the year 2010. Efforts to control bilharzia are also picking up globally. According to WHO, some 12.4 million people were treated for the disease in 2006, and this rose to 33.5 million in 2010.
Drug manufacturing company Merck pledged in 2000 to produce 20 million Praziquantel tablets, a drug which has been most commonly used to treat bilharzia over the next decade increase its output in 2012 to 250 million tablets.
Such beneficial national programmes have seen dramatic results. According to the WHO, China, Cambodia, Egypt, Uganda and Burkina Faso have all pushed health education and access to Praziquantel, making the disease almost non-existent.
FRANCIS TAWIAH (Duisburg – Germany)