At the Kpong airfield, a few kilometres from Lake Volta in northern Ghana, Patricia Mawuli, pilot and co-founder of Medicine on the Move (MoM), a local NGO, is preparing her plane for takeoff. She is one of four health workers who fly weekly to isolated communities around the lake to raise awareness of the dangers of schistosomiasis, also called bilharzia.
Schistosomiasis is a parasitic disease caused by a flatworm that enters the skin and is found in infected water. Snails - common in Lake Volta - often act as an intermediary host for the worms before they get into humans, where they eat away at the internal organs. The symptoms include fever and passing blood in urine and faeces, and are often detected very late. Bilharzia can stunt children’s growth and affect their cognitive development.
Classified as a neglected tropical disease by the World Health Organization, some 200 million people across Africa, Asia and South America are thought to be infected, but less than 15 percent are being treated, according to Lester Chitsulo, a research scientist in the Neglected Tropical Diseases department of the World Health Organization (WHO).
WHO is trying to help governments put in place more effective prevention programmes by training community health workers like Mawuli, pushing hygiene and public health awareness, and negotiating drug donations with major suppliers.
Around the lake many people are unaware of the disease or its symptoms, said MoM’s other co-founder, Jonathan Porter. Many men see having blood their urine as a sign of virility he said, but doctors say it is a sign that the disease has eaten its way through the lower intestine.
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Each week MoM air-drops leaflets in four languages over villages - particularly schools, so teachers can explain the contents - to inform people about how they can catch, prevent, and treat the illness.
Air drops are considered the most effective way of reaching the hundreds of isolated communities around the lake, where many are three hours from a hard-surfaced road, said Porter.
Ghana has made progress in controlling bilharzia with its national prevention programme, run in partnership with USAID, WHO and NGOs. In 2008 it treated 300,000 children, which escalated to 1.7 million in 2010.
Efforts to control bilharzia are also picking up globally. According to WHO, some 12.4 million people were treated for the disease in 2006, and this rose to 33.5 million in 2010.
Drug manufacturer Merck pledged in 2000 to produce 20 million Praziquantel tablets - the drug most commonly used to treat bilharzia - over the next decade, and in 2012 to increase output to 250 million.
Some national programmes have seen dramatic results. China, Cambodia, Egypt, Uganda and Burkina Faso have all pushed health education and access to Praziquantel, making the disease almost non-existent, WHO said.
International efforts to combat neglected tropical diseases are also picking up steam, with governments, the World Bank, major drug companies and international NGOs signing the London Declaration on Neglected Tropical Diseases in January 2012, in which signatories pledged to bring bilharzia and 10 other neglected tropical diseases under control by 2020.
But many sub-Saharan African nations are lagging behind - just 21 out of 40 affected countries have prevention programmes, and in Nigeria, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo the lack of assistance means sufferers will be treated only if an NGO or UN agency is there to do so.
Health experts told IRIN that the roadmap in the London declaration will be only achieved with far more concerted efforts at the national level.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions