When I returned to work on Monday morning, Pattie asked me if she could leave at 3pm to take her 11-year old daughter to the clinic. She had been really lethargic and throwing up the last few days. I of course told her that her daughter’s health should be her priority and to go ahead and leave whenever she needed to. When I asked Pattie the next morning whether her daughter was OK, she said that she was diagnosed as a 2+ but the Dr. said there was nothing to worry about. This is when I got a full lesson on Malaria. I guess Malaria diagnosis are classified as 1+, 2+, 3+ and 4+, with 4+ being the most severe cases, which can kill you if not attended to timely. This was the 3rd time that her daughter was diagnosed with the disease. Then all the members of my team started telling me about their own Malaria experiences. Chicco, who is in her mid-20s said she had Malaria probably about 10 times, which included one 4+ diagnosis.
I guess I stupidly didn’t realize that pretty much everyone in the country suffers at one point or another from this awful disease. Malaria is caused by a parasite in the bloodstream spread via the bite of the female Anopheles mosquito. The disease is prevalent in Malawi, especially during the rainy season, which fortunately won’t start until late-Oct/early-Nov. The early symptoms of the disease include headaches, fevers, tiredness, generalized aches and pains, which could be mistaken for the flu. Other symptoms can include abdominal pain, diarrhea and a cough. Those with an immunocompromised system or pregnant women are definitely at a greater risk and could experience severe impacts even if diagnosed at a 1+ or 2+ level.
The other Malaria-related fact I learned in my conversation with Pattie and others on my team is that sleeping under a Mosquito net is actually a government mandate. I guess I’ve been an outlaw for the past few nights as I stopped sleeping under mine because I couldn’t get comfortable, always finding myself tangled in it because it isn’t big enough to be tucked on both sides of my bed. I’ve kept all my windows closed instead and haven’t had any new bites. I also have been very diligent at taking my antimalarial drug every morning and haven’t experienced any of the side effects associated with the drug I’m taking, which apparently include abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting.
Our conversation about everyone’s experience with Malaria revealed how Malawi’s health system is broken. Most Malawians of course can’t afford to go to private clinics so the wait at public clinics is typically in the order of a full day. And I was told that public clinics often have no drugs so one can wait all day just to get a prescription that won’t do them any good since they can’t afford going to a pharmacy. If you have read some of my previous bog postings, you may recall that I visited a clinic (see attached photo) with no running water. Andrea, another volunteer on our team, was telling us at dinner last night that she ran into a clinic with no water and no sanitation facilities. Yet you find courageous and dedicated doctors at these facilities who see hundreds of patients each day, trying to do the best they can with very little resources.
While evaluating a communal water kiosk in a remote village of the Kachere low-income area yesterday, I met a family with a young boy who was obviously very sick. Although not well and in pain, he wanted his photo taken like everyone else (he’s the little boy in beige shorts and t-shirt, siting on the water kiosk’s concrete slab). I asked Pattie to ask his parents if they had taken the boy to a clinic. They didn’t they said because it would take them a full day to walk to the nearest clinic and the boy was too weak to walk this long and too heavy to be carried the whole way. So they just wait … wait, hope and pray he will get better. How messed up and unfair is this!
Thank goodness that these heart wrenching encounters are intermixed with heart-warming ones. During the past two days, Pattie and I have stopped by to visit Josephine (one of Patty’s best friends) and her husband for lunch. The first day we ate in their house, the only 2-story house in the community, which is a very big deal. When I asked Salomon (Josephine’s husband) how many kids he had, he responded “a unit.” It took me a little while to realize that a unit means 10. No wonder why they needed a second story on their house. Salomon immediately made me feel totally at home siting in his living room to eat our lunch while conversing about the tribal structure and politics of the country. The second day we ate with Josephine in the little shop (think convenience store) she operates in front of her house (see photo of Josephine in front of her shop and one with her and I inside). I continue to bring lunch for Pattie every day, which I know brings her such joy. I just need to make sure I keep enough food for my climb of Mt. Mulanje but that shouldn’t be a problem. Anyway, Pattie had Josephine smell her hands after I shared by Purel with her (part of our lunch ritual) and it was so funny to hear her describe the various things we share every day (soy crackers, trail mix, turkey jerky, dried apples and granola bar). When Josephine learned that I was trying to help with the country’s water crisis, she said it was a good thing because she heard that the cases of Cholera at the closest health clinic radically go up whenever water isn’t available at nearby water points and people start fetching water at the river. That of course makes perfect sense since Cholera is caused by a bacteria that is spread by drinking contaminated water.
I guess it would be easy to get discouraged by how much needs to be done to improve the quality of life in the low-income areas around Blantyre. On the other hand very little (like just connecting the 4 water kiosks without water we visited yesterday) could make such a big difference we who have the means and capabilities can’t afford to get overwhelmed … but instead just more determined to make a difference. And talking about a difference, check out the Millennium Development Goals displayed in the office of the Heachteacher at the South Lunzu primary school.