A GNA Feature by Dennis Peprah, GNA
Sunyani, July 9, GNA – I was very young when I sighted him in my neighbourhood in the 1980s, and his lifestyle was extremely weird to me.
Many residents in the neighbourhood avoided Obediaba, who was always seen alone, but because I was inquisitive, I decided to establish a relationship with him.
It was until I got closer to him that I discovered residents in the neighbourhood were shunning his company due to his predicament.
He was suffering from lymphatic filariasis, commonly known in Ghana as Elephantiasis.
Neighbours regarded him as an outcast, believing his sickness was as a result of a trans-generational family curse.
For Obediaba, 47, life became unfair and uncomfortable at age 12, when he began to experience some signs and reactions of the disease. His was suffering from a recurrent fever.
He told me his parents would prepare some herbal concoctions for him to drink and somehow it contained the fever for a period of time, but the sickness kept recurring.
“In fact I will not blame my parents much for my condition because they were also ignorant. Because there were mosquitoes around, everybody believed my deteriorating health condition was as a result of severe malaria”, he once said in a conversation.
None of the people in his neighbourhood knew that Obediaba was experiencing early symptoms of elephantiasis.
But, because his parents could not notice the recurring abnormality in his body, Obediaba is currently left with an enlargement in his right arm, and he goes around begging for alms.
Lymphatic Filariasis or elephantiasis is among the 20 infections and parasitic Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs), which affects over a billion people worldwide with most of them living in extreme poverty.
Elephantiasis is caused by parasitic worms that are spread through mosquito bites and the victim’s skin gets thick and hard. Although medically known as lymphatic filariasis, the term elephantiasis is commonly used because symptoms include swelling and enlargement of the arms and legs.
World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 120 million people worldwide are affected by elephantiasis.
Health officials say it’s untrue that elephantiasis is linked to witchcraft, family or trans-generational curses as perceived by many in Ghana.
Medicine has proven beyond reasonable doubt that with early detection and strict adherence to the drugs, lymphatic filariasis can be treated.
According to the Ghana Health Service (GHS), societal myth surrounding the disease was contributing to high stigma and subsequently impeding Ghana’s efforts to eradicate it.
Dr. Benjamin Kofi Marfo, the Programmes Manager for the NTDs has recommended intensified public education to break the silence, to make people understand the disease, which is not a curse but a public health problem that could be treated and managed.
Speaking at the 2019 national launch of the Mass Drug Administration against NTDs in Sunyani, Dr. Marfo regretted that because lymphatic filariasis was endemic, the country would be unable to eradicate it and other NTDs by 2020.
The WHO requires that all NTDs are eradicated by 2020 worldwide, but the situation is worrying because research shows that many people in Ghana suffering from elephantiasis conceal it and refused to seek medication because of the high stigma attached to it.
Research has proved that most people infected would for some time show no symptoms, despite damage to the lymph system and kidneys.
But, those who do get symptoms most commonly experienced swelling of the legs, arms, breasts and genitals. People with elephantiasis would have impaired immune function because of damage to their lymph system and they tend to get more bacterial infections of the skin, causing it to become dry, thick and ulcerated with repeated infections.
How does the disease spread?
Mosquitoes are responsible for spreading the parasites that cause elephantiasis.
Firstly, mosquitoes become infected with roundworm larvae when they suck blood from an infected human, it then bites another person, passing the larvae into his or her bloodstream.
Finally, the worm larvae migrates to the lymphatic via the bloodstream and mature in the lymph system.
Elephantiasis can affect anyone who is exposed to the parasites that cause the disease and the risk of exposure is greatest for people who live long-term in tropical and subtropical regions, in unhygienic conditions and are regularly bitten by mosquitoes.
Elephantiasis is associated with several physical and emotional complications including poverty, disability and emotional stress, as the condition cause most people to worry about their appearance, which lead to anxiety and depression.
Dr. Marfo therefore called for concerted approach for the early detection of the diseases to put patients on medication.
He emphasised that the GHS was determined to eradicate the NTDs at least by 2025, and called for concerted efforts by stakeholders in the health sector to achieve the target.
Dr. Yao Yeboah, the Chairman of the GHS Governing Council also stressed that multi-sectoral approach was required between GHS, traditional authorities, civil society actors, development partners and all stakeholders to eradicate the NTDs in the endemic areas.
He stressed the need to also improve on engagements among stakeholders, intensify community education and sensitisation, enhance training and motivate community volunteers in the fight against the NTDs.
As a neglected disease, the writer believes the GHS alone cannot shoulder the responsibility towards eradicating NTDs in general and all Ghanaians must become active concerned citizens but not passive spectators to help eliminate it.