I’ve been doing Médecins Sans Frontières missions for 10 years but I can still be surprised by the sheer determination and resilience of people in remote areas.
Central Africa is covered by huge rainforests with tracts of savannah. This humid environment is also inhabited by the tsetse fly, which carries the parasite causing sleeping sickness. Sleeping sickness sounds innocuous, but in fact it is a slow killer.
I joined the team as it headed off to an area in the northeast of Democratic Republic of Congo. This country is where more than two-thirds of all current sleeping sickness cases are found. Diagnosis is complex, needing trained staff, electrical equipment and a fridge. Jeeps can cope with the main tracks through the forest, but as the rainy season progresses, good bridges become essential for crossing swamps and streams.
We have to get to villages by 7am as we need to screen up to 80 percent of the people living there in order to halt the spread of the parasite. Without treatment, they would almost certainly die.
As Médecins Sans Frontières volunteers, we never turn away other medical emergencies, which we treat at an emergency room close to our base. It’s been 10 years since my first sleeping sickness project with Médecins Sans Frontières. In that time I have seen a real decrease in levels of the disease: in 1998 there were 300,000 new cases; today that’s been reduced to 50,000-70,000, which is really encouraging. It may be possible in the near future to completely eliminate this parasite as a threat to the health of millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa. If you are interested in supporting MSF’s work please visit msf.ie