By Chioma Obinna
Ignorance, stigma, discrimination, and fear of matrimonial as well as other societal consequences have continued to rob victims of NTDs such as elephantiasis their livelihood and treatment they require to get well.
Today, findings by Good Health Weekly, have shown that most Nigerians affected by any of the 15 Neglected Tropical Diseases NTDs, ravaging communities have continued to suppress their health-seeking behaviour. Many are reluctant to speak about their condition.
More pathetic is the fact that they have been healed but the disease still remains.
Such is the case of 45-year–old Lucy, currently suffering from lymphatic filariasis, popularly known as elephantiasis.
Elephantiasis is an infectious disease caused by tiny worms spread by mosquitoes.
Lucy, a mother of nine, who hails from Ogu–Bolo Local Government Area of Rivers State has lived with the disease for 9 years without treatment.
According to Lucy, it all started as an ordinary swelling of the leg each time she is pregnant. But little did she know that the swelling was a sign of elephantiasis.
For her, at first, it was part of the complications in pregnancy called oedema, where the legs retain fluid.
“I never believed that the swelling each time I am pregnant will result in a more this condition.
“Any time I am pregnant my leg will swell up and the moment II deliver it will go down,” she said
According to Lucy, she thought it was not going to be a big health problem until after her third delivery and the swollen leg could no longer touch the ground.
“I was afraid when the swelling continued instead of going down.”
Her situation became worse in 2009 when she gave birth to another baby girl precisely on 1st September, 2009
“A month after my delivery, I started feeling enormous pain on the leg and a sort of pulling in the muscle.
“My fear became worst but I thanked God that I was not pregnant then because I would not have cope with bathing myself.”
Still confused about her situation, instead of visiting a hospital for a proper diagnosis, Lucy decided to see her pastor.
“I cried my eyes out because the site was becoming reddish as if blood was coming out of the place. We almost miss took it for a condition usually inflicted on someone through fetish means.
“I did not take any drug. I went to church and my Pastor prayed for me and the leg came down. This happened three times after the Pastor poured holy water on the leg.”
Full of hopes, Lucy thought her plight was over but little did she know that the problem was not of mystical causes, but of medical causes.
“After the third time it went down, it stopped going down even after applying holy water. Rather, it worsened.
While in search of treatment, many suggested she seek treatment from traditional healers.
Desperate Lucy could not hide her desperation when she approached a group of medical personnel who came to their community for a medical mission. “I begged them to give me drugs to drink and I took the drugs and the leg came down after I urinated very well.”
Sadly, the problem resurfaced. Still unaware of her condition, she started self-medicating.
“Since I did not know the name of the drugs the Group gave me each time it swells up, I will visit the pharmacy to purchase drugs that can make me urinate and I will also pray.
“Despite these measures, Lucy’s condition continued to deteriorate until she was picked up by members of the Rivers State, Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) Control/Elimination/Eradication Programme.
Like Lucy, not less than 122 million Nigerians are at risk for NTDs such as trachoma, (Granular Conjunctivitis), Onchocerciasis, (River blindness) Lymphatic Filariasis, (Elephantiasis) helminthiasis, soil-transmitted, schistosomiasis, (parasitic worms) and leprosy, snakebites Yaws Rabies, Buruli ulcer, Leishmaniasis, Human African Trypanosomiasis, HAT, among others.
According to the NTDs Coordinator in Rivers State, Mr. Mordecai Isreal, 13 Local Government Areas, LGAs, in Rivers state are endemic for Elephantiasis.
Unfortunately, due to fear of stigmatisation and ignorance, hundreds of them have refused to seek proper treatment for their conditions.
“We saw Lucy during one of our outreaches in the community. Like her, many of them have refused to come out and take free treatment,” he said.
However, due to the difficulty in detecting some of these diseases in Nigeria, many of them have been linked to witchcraft and poison. Sadly, findings by Good Health Weekly showed that most of the patients suffer a great deal even when the disease is gone. It is not usually the end. For instance, people with leprosy resist health-seeking behaviour for fear of stigmatisation and ostracisation. Buruli ulcer is often attributed to mystical causes while elephantiasis is incurable but patients have to cope with the stigma of their deformities.
According to the National Coordinator, Neglected Tropical Diseases Elimination Programme, Federal Ministry of Health, Dr. Nse Akpan, all States are endemic for one or more of these NTDs and only four LGAs out of the 774 LGAs are not endemic for any of the NTDs.
Akpan who spoke during a media dialogue in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, said 119.8 million people are at risk of lymphatic filariasis, 51.4 million people for onchocerciasis, 28.8 million school-age children and 20.5 million pre-school-age children for soil-transmitted hermits, 26.8 million people for trachoma and 23.8 million school-age children for schistosomiasis.
Statistics from Neglected Tropical Diseases Elimination Programme, that Nigeria has an estimated at-risk population of 138 million for elephantiasis, 50 million at risk of onchocerciasis.
Experts say as the country battle 15 NTDs out of 20 identified by the WHO, there is need to scale up interventions to cover all eligible endemic LGAs and all at-risk populations following elimination mapping by the Federal government even as they called for the need to intensify high level advocacy to policy makers for improved support and release of funds for NTD.