Eloise and the hunt for sleeping sickness

The pursuit of cleaning our nearby villages of sleeping sickness continues.

The pursuit of cleaning our nearby villages of sleeping sickness continues.

Last week, the mobile team and I made 2 visits to 2 local villages. We screened until no one wanted to be screened anymore. The villagers and village chief were satisfied that they had been thoroughly tested for the fatal disease. I was satisfied as well. I could personally see each visit we made to these villages yielded fewer and fewer people wanting to be screened. A good sign.

When we go to the villages for mobile activities, we pre-empt our visit by sending letters to the village chief to inform their population we will be coming. Then we send one of our staff on a bicycle to the village to discuss what is sleeping sickness and why we are coming.

Once we get to the village, it is festive. Laughing and smiling children gather by the dozens. They want to shake hands, try out some of their French and check out the excitement. Village elders are given chairs under a massive tree to calmly observe the proceedings and I assume reflect on the state of their people. Our two MSF Land Cruisers and 7-8 staff begin unloading equipment and greeting the gathered onlookers. I feel good too. I love this.

The first priority is to formally greet the village chief and ask his permission to undertake our activities. Then we have to set up a large perimeter so that innocent and curious people don't disturb our laboratory  staff or mix up the order of people cueing to have their blood tested for the sleeping sickness parasite. Crowd control is a top priority but so is the comfort of those waiting to be tested. We try to select areas of the village where people will have some shade from the baking sun as they wait to be tested. Although right now, we can screen around 30 persons per hour, there still is big cue.

I constantly talk to the people waiting in line. I tell them why were are here, what is MSF, and what is sleeping sickness. They thank us. I answer their questions. I socialize and try out some new words I have learned in the local language, M'Bai.

My favorite activity is talking to mothers about their children. They eagerly let me hold their babies and it brings me delight. My white MSF t-shirt takes a yellow and brown colour many times as a result of holding babies. Ever since I have joined MSF and now in my second mission, nothing makes me happier than holding children with their families'permission. Justin and Jacob, two reliable and motivated national staff with us on the mobile activities love children as much as I do. They want in on the fun. They ask to hold the children I've plucked from the crowd. We smile and we feel good.

Eloise is a young woman with a baby who has been screened positive for sleeping sickness. When I talk to her about coming to hospital for more testing and treatment, she refuses. My usual explanations don't seem to work. I sit with her on an uncomfortable bench made of a knotted tree trunk and ask why with the help of Felix, one of our local staff.

Eloise is a widow, she is busy, she has no soap, she has little food and she is poor. I spend 20 minutes more talking with her. I assure her she will be fed at the hospital from food donated to us from the United Nations World Food Program. The mobile team has packed up and the Land Cruisers are ready to go and the team is waiting for us. We have another village to go to. I find the village chief and see if together we can convince Eloise to come.

We are standing beside the running Land Cruisers now. She still refuses. I am vexed. What can I do to motivate her to come? In the end, it is her choice; I can only inform her of the risks and benefits of treatment and of not being treated.

Finally, I tell Eloise that if not having soap is her main concern, I will give her soap. I promise her some bars of soap, knowing we routinely give out soap anyway to the malnourished children in the hospital. It will cost us pennies if at all. Eloise agrees. She will come. I give her a handwritten note to give to me when she arrives and then I will make sure she gets soap and is taken care of.

Eloise is symbolic to me of the plight of Centraafricans in this region. Jarringly poor, with practical concerns, needing basic things like soap, clean water and basic medical care from potentially fatal diseases.

Onto the next village.

Warm wishes from the Central African Republic, Raghu Venugopal