Measles, and the Curse of the Flying Snake

03 January 2008 Comments

Some of my earliest memories are of a doctor's office. I had the misfortune of having a family doctor whose clinic was like a nightmarish scene from a Coen Brothers film. There were about 57 stairs from the street to the good doctor's second-story office, and every step was like ascending one tread closer to a shadowy medical hell, boasting only an absence of daylight. When you're a kid, "doctor" might as well be spelled N-E-E-D-L-E. Sterile daggers plunged into infant arms with the grace of a blind bandit. I'm still branded on my left arm from a traitorous small pox vaccination.

For half of November our project implemented a mass measles campaign (MMC) in Wuror County, South Sudan. I was fortunate enough to help out for two of those days. This was significant for two reasons. First of all, the opportunity to take part in and promote any immunization campaign is in my opinion as meaningful as a day's work gets. Second, this was the first time in nearly two months that I traveled more than 1000 meters, and to say that I was a little excited to get out of Pieri is an understatement of epic proportion. Don't get me wrong — I love my home away from, but once in a while a man needs to stretch his legs.

Although I try not to hold much stock in the currency of "cool," it is hard not to be just a little bit pleased with one's self when you're four-wheeling through the southern Sudanese bush. Our ride lasted a couple of hours and if I had my way it would have lasted a few days. The Sudanese planes are incredible. Massive herds of cattle highlight the horizon and, in the right light, a cow can be a rather striking creature.

The village elders fronted by their Paramount Chief welcomed our team when we arrived in Rubllet. Although we had sent word of our vaccination plans days earlier, our message for whatever reason had never reached its intended recipient. Such is life without phone, email or trained pigeon. We had hoped that there would be a line of kids awaiting our arrival but as it turned out we had to mobilize the village's children ourselves. Our team, five strong, split into two groups. The first group rallied the willing, and the second setup shop. Within an hour we were ready and awaiting our first child. As the late morning bowed to early afternoon, our target population of a thousand kids between the ages of six months and fifteen years started to trickle in.

There have been a few occasions in Pieri when children have been terrified simply by my presence — and by terrified I mean Jason, Freddy and Jaws wrapped into one furry Canuck. On one occasion I was exiting our compound and startled a little girl so badly that she shrieked and bowled over her older sister before my first step hit the ground. At any rate you combine 500 needles with my uncanny ability to scare kids and you have more crying on Day One of our MMC than a sorority at a double bill of "Beaches" and "The Notebook."

A mass vaccination campaign is a fairly straightforward procedure if you have the requisite ratio of staff to injectable arms. For each line of kids you need a person to fill out a vaccination card, another to load the syringes, and a trained person to give the actual shot. You need a fourth person to ensure that the child takes a vitamin A gelcap post injection to protect them from blindness, and a final person to tally the whole ordeal. Logistically you need only to ensure a safe means of disposing used needles and a cold box to keep the vaccines between two and eight degrees. Other than that, a good sense of humour helps to keep the ankle biters at bay. It is remarkable how simple and effective the vaccination process is. MSF estimates that by vaccinating one child, we are potentially stopping the spread of measles to 10 other unvaccinated children.

To quote Ice Cube: "today was a good day".

Some Facts on the Ground:

1) Snakes can jump! On the afternoon of our second day in Rubllet I witnessed a meter-long green snake jump into the air. And by jump I mean attack a man in a soaring fashion. The potential victim of this sadistic serpent was too busy laughing at me as I fled in terror to be bothered by an emerald snake balls high in the air. Rumour has it that the snake was harmless. Somebody should tell that to the snake!!!

2) Camping out under the stars in southern Sudan is as wild and wonderful as you'd imagine. I understand that after two decades of civil war the elephants have returned to their Sudanese home and that the lions may not be too far behind.

3) Our hosts in the village of Rubllet slaughtered two goats to thank MSF for our efforts. A beautiful gesture but a gesture that, combined with some hard-core backcountry driving, lead to some hard-core backcountry barfing! I'm a vegetarian…

4) As much as I dislike the political arm of the UN, disagree with the Insecurity Council and despise baby blue in general, I must give it up to our friends at UNICEF. Since 2005, they have immunized over 3 million children from measles in southern Sudan.

5) During the two-decade civil war in Sudan it was only Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) like MSF that offered lifesaving immunizations in southern Sudan.

Over the last couple of years the majority of my dearest friends and family have either had children, or assisted in their making. It is beautiful to watch the friends you love develop into parents you admire. Sitting here I wonder what their lives would be like today if they had never had access to a single checkup while pregnant, a midwife to assist with the delivery or doctor to consult during the first months of their baby’s life. How different would my life be if my parents had not been blessed by the same fortune? In Sudan that speculation is befallen by reality, a reality that every day MSF helps to make a little bit better.

Salutations from the south,
Michael