Vickie Remoe Institute of Digital Communications

State of Elephantiasis Disease in Sierra Leone

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Elephantiasis is a tropical parasitic disease that is transmitted by mosquitoes which accumulate fluids in the body leading to enlargement and swelling of legs and other organs. It starts in childhood and the incubation period lasts about five to six years, and grows into a thick round resemblance of an elephant’s leg, as the name implies. It can eventually lead to death if neglected because it is painful, deforming and irreversible.

In Sierra Leone, Bombali remains the only district where the disease is prevalent though other parts of the country are free from transmission but are prone to attracting the disease. The disease is believed to be a curse, myth, and witchcraft in Sierra Leone.

Hawa Conteh is a twenty-eight years old widow, a mother of four in Karbo village, Safforoko chiefdom who suffers from the disease for a decade and grapples with poverty and stigmatisation. She told the BBC that people in the village believe that the disease is a curse in her family because her elder sister also suffered from the disease. After the death of her husband, no one could get married to her because of fear of mockery from people.

According to the World Health Organisation, elephantiasis affects fifty million people in Africa but residents of Makoto village believe that it is caused by witchcraft. The community is faced with so many obstacles among which are improper hygiene that allow mosquitoes to breed, so life gets perturbing for those living with the disease. Thirteen-year-old Kadie Koroma is a case study. She said she walks seven miles to and from school with severe pains from the veins in her leg. She added that she gets ignored by motorbikes daily so she treks slowly till the pain subsides to reach her destination.

A woman from one of the villages complained that her husband no longer shares the bed with her because of the look of her leg.

To curb the myth and stigma, health officials occasionally hold meetings in the affected communities. The country director of the charity group that has been helping the fight in the country,  Helen Keller International, Sugand Gunejer, said they have managed to bring down the prevalence of the disease and they’ve made immense progress in Bombali even though the disease is persistent. She said there are two hundred patients with active transmission. She explained that one can get the infection but having a swollen foot might be prevented if effective treatment is taken.

The Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Dr Alie Wurie, who was speaking at an engagement held to mark the day of Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) on January 30, 2023, explained that the disease is prevalent because people believe the disease to be a cause of witchcraft and by the time they realise to treat it medically, it is too late.

He is hopeful, however, that by 2030, as set by the World Health Organization, Elephantiasis would be eliminated in Sierra Leone.

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