Monday, March 14, 2016

My Week With Malaria | By Volunteer Katherine O'Donnell

  • Malaria Kills 438,000 people each year – the vast majority are children 
  • It can kill within 24 hours of symptom onset
  • It can infect an African child up to 13 times a year 
  • Malaria kills a child somewhere in the world every minute 
Katherine recovering at the Afrikids hospital in Bolgatanga

A few weeks ago I went into hospital for blood tests because I was showing the symptoms of malaria. The week before another volunteer, Yasmin, had fallen ill with malaria too. She caught it early enough and was prescribed anti-malarials which cleared her of it in a few days. By now, I had realised how common malaria is in Ghana and was not scared of the possibility of going through what Yasmin had experienced. 

I wasn’t prepared for the doctor’s very casual diagnosis that I had ‘severe malaria’ and that although I was sat in front of him feeling ok, within hours my health would start to decline. I was to be admitted to a ward and put on an IV drip containing the anti-malarial drug Quinine, where I would be monitored for 24 hours. Unfortunately because of my reaction to the medication I stayed for four days and still, four weeks later, my health is not 100%. 

When I heard the world Malaria I instantly associated it with serious illness and the possibility of death and my family and friends had the same reaction. This is largely due to the way that it is perceived in the UK, but also how it is portrayed in the media. Even when I was in the hospital in Bolgatanga an advert for a charity came on the ward’s television giving terrifying statistics of how many people die a day in Ghana due to malaria. This was not reassuring.

What was reassuring was that evidently the nurses and doctors had treated countless cases of malaria. I took to asking everyone who came to visit and every nurse that checked my vital signs if they have ever had the parasite, everyone had a personal story to tell and they all resulted in recovering after treatment.

This is what I was not fully aware of and now understand, if caught early the type of malaria I had is treatable without long lasting side effects. There are two stages of malaria, the liver stage where symptoms are mild and the parasites will not necessarily show up on a blood test and the blood stage where the parasites move into the blood and attack the red blood cells. This is when it is classed as severe, and if not treated quickly it can become fatal. I have discovered that malaria is treatable and effective medicines have been developed to cure it, but many people continue to die from the disease.

There are many factors that can prevent people from being diagnosed, such as not sleeping under insecticide-treated nets, lack of education on the symptoms or having a casual attitude towards malaria preventing people from seeking medical attention within 24 hours of symptom onset. One of the most important factors is living circumstances - if someone lives in poverty they might not have the money to afford healthcare or if they live in a rural area they might not get access to healthcare in time. 

According to the Ghana Living Standard Survey 6 report conducted by the Ghana Statistical service, 24.2 percent of Ghanaians lived below the poverty line in 2013. That is 6.4 million people that could not afford treatment if they were to contract malaria. Further to this, 8.4 percent of the population lived in extreme poverty, which means that they could not afford to spend more than GHS2.17 (GBP0.39) on food a day. These statistics are heart breaking, but progress is being made.  Ghana has achieved goal one of the Millennium Development Goals, which was to half poverty between the years 2005 and 2015.

I am incredibly grateful that I am staying in a capital city which meant that I could access treatment in time, and that I am in a position where I was able to afford healthcare. But it is not right that I should have this privilege when so many people will die from the same disease because they do not. One of the first steps to reducing the number of deaths from malaria is to work towards alleviating poverty. The statistics show that this is happening at an incredible rate, and I hope that the work we are doing with International Service helps to speed up this process and helps more people to break free from the poverty cycle. 

*Information from www.mmv.org and www.unicef.org

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