A glimmer of hope in a land of affliction
Diseases – some of them unspeakably awful – are among the curses of sub-Saharan Africa, worse even than the prevailing epidemic of misrule.
They cripple, disfigure and diminish productivity. A child born there today, if he or she manages to survive to age 5, has a shorter life expectancy than an infant born in any other region of the world – just 54 years by the latest reckoning.
In spite of the grim numbers, some progress has been made. Smallpox has been eliminated worldwide. Major efforts are underway to reduce the incidence and spread of HIV and polio.
The use of specially treated nets in village dwellings has proved to lessen the risk of mosquito-borne malaria, a principal childhood killer.
And in recent years, an international effort has been mounted to eliminate an especially horrid and painful condition, the Guinea worm disease.
It is contracted by drinking stagnant water, which often contains larvae of the parasite. If ingested, the organism matures into a worm, which grows in the host’s body – usually in a leg – to a length of as much as three feet.
Eventually a sore erupts, exposing an end of the worm, which can be extracted by wrapping it around a stick and drawing it out with utmost care, a centimeter at a time. If broken, the worm must be removed surgically.
I’ve been nine times to Africa, and anyone who travels there very extensively is apt to sample its afflictions.
In Nigeria I contracted malaria but recovered, thanks to treatment by a U.S. embassy doctor. And in 1986, during three months living with my wife and our two daughters in Senegal, a worm invaded my foot. I could feel the thing moving when I tried to sleep.
Mercifully, it was a lesser worm, not the Guinea one. A course of pills and an external salve prescribed by a Lebanese doctor in Dakar killed the critter.
Also in Dakar I often encountered a young beggar – a lad maybe 15 or 16 – whose regular station was the doorway of a bakery on a street not far from our lodging.
He seemed a sweet-natured boy but shy and terribly disfigured in his face, and crippled in his hands and feet, by the disease that through ages past caused its victims to be shunned and exiled from society.
He suffered from Hansen’s disease, the bacterial ailment more commonly known as leprosy, which affects some 250,000 people a year worldwide.
Hard to diagnose and long thought untreatable, it now can be cured and its ravages prevented with modern medications – but only if it can be identified in its earliest stages.
Hence the importance of the recent news that a research team in Seattle has designed a simple test costing less than a dollar to produce, and requiring only one finger prick of blood for analysis, that yields results in under 10 minutes, making it possible to diagnose and treat leprosy long before symptoms have appeared.
This and similar medical breakthroughs promise hope for relief from much preventable suffering. The challenge lies in delivering those benefits to a continent of more than 1 billion people, many living in circumstances of grinding poverty, extreme isolation or political chaos.