Imagine waking up one day and your leg starts to swell. It is very painful and no matter what you do, your leg continues to fill with fluid. This is exactly what happened to Hannah Araba Taylor, who has spent her entire life in the Congo Town section of Freetown, Sierra Leone.
One morning twenty-five years ago, Hannah woke up shivering; her entire leg was swollen and very red. Although she didn’t know it yet, she had been infected by the parasite that causes Lymphatic Filariasis (LF) – known locally as “big fut” – a painful Neglected Tropical Disease resulting in disfigurement and swelling that is common among the poor. Although the disease is not life-threatening, it often leaves the infected person so disabled she is unable to work. In addition to the pain, the disfigurement can also create social stigma.
Over the next two decades, Hannah tried scores of antibiotics and medicines and went to various doctors and healers. Nothing helped.
Lymphatic Filariasis can, however, be treated with annual doses of ivermectin and albendazole, donated by Merck & Co., Inc. and GlaxoSmithKline respectively. LF can even be eliminated as a public health problem if 65% of the at-risk population receives treatment for at least five years. This level of coverage is, however, especially challenging to achieve in urban settings, like Congo Town, because of the high population density, the need for extensive social mobilization and inadequate population data which impacts distribution logistics.
In 2010, Helen Keller International conducted mass drug administration in the Western Area of Sierra Leone, which includes Freetown. The campaign reached a remarkable 85% of the target population, including Hannah. After 25 years, she finally received the drugs she needed; she has less pain, and can actually sleep through the night.
Throughout her ordeal, Hannah’s approach remained remarkably positive: “I don’t let my condition press heavily on my heart. It can be painful, frustrating, and depressing, you can’t wear shoes, it’s hard to walk, but if you allow yourself to feel depressed, you will die very quickly.”
In September, HKI again conducted the annual LF campaign in the Western Area and reached over 1,250,000 people. We will continue these campaigns until people like Hannah don’t suffer needlessly.