Editor’s Note: CP-Africa contributor, Paul Adepoju, will be writing on various themes surrounding African health care in a series of articles. This is the first of such series.
Like accidents, untimely death, larceny and arson, no one prays to fall sick. All over the world, people, especially those without any medical affiliation, dread sickness; and greatly loath the white halls of medical facilities with holy anger. Spiritualists, herbalists, imams, prophets, pastors and deliverance ministers also compound the already complex human perception of sickness by attaching so much sensitive credence to illnesses, even when they are of natural causes; and falling sick is seen as an attack from the camp of the enemy which could only be conquered by the fervent prayers of the righteous which avail much.
In the same vein, medical etymologists are contemplating adding medicophobia to the English dictionary. The rationale behind the abject fear of white apparels is not far-fetched ─ no one desire to fall sick.
Sickness literally refers to any harmful change that interferes with the normal appearance, structure, or function of the body or any of its parts. Throughout the history of man, illnesses had affected economy, security, politics and geography. Also, the dreaded nature of various human diseases stemmed from the associated fatality and resulting mortality if left untreated.
People have always been fearful of sicknesses and their effects. In China in the 13th century bc, the ruler of Anyang asked his diviners, ‘Will this year have pestilence and will it be deaths?’ In Egypt around 2000 bc, a writer compared fear of the Pharaoh with fear of epidemics. The Old Testament of the Bible refers to several epidemics, including one that affected the Philistines, purportedly as punishment for seizing the Ark of the Covenant. Also, the British Isles were hit by at least 49 epidemics between ad 526 and 1087 resulting in the death of Britons numbering several hundreds of thousands.
Other instances include the epidemic that struck in Athens in 430 bc which created pandemonium in the city and contributed to its defeat in the war against Sparta (not Spartacus). The Black Death is another unforgettable example. It was an epidemic of bubonic plague that broke out in Europe in ad 1347. By 1351 an estimated 25 to 50 per cent of the people in Europe had died from the disease. The Black Death depopulated previously flourishing cities, left villages vacant, and caused a decline in cultivated land.
The global influenza epidemic is another example. It swept the globe in 1918, killing about 50 million people−five times more deaths than were caused by World War I (1914 – 1918). Even in recent times, sicknesses, illnesses, diseases, disorders and other medical aberrations continue to be the leading causes of infant, adolescent, maternal and paternal morbidities and mortalities in every country of the world.
In the US, diseases of the heart ─ according to the CDC ─ are the leading causes of death. In Nigeria, it is malaria; in Canada, cancer is blazing the trail; while Australians, Mexicans and New Zealanders tremble at the thoughts of the long claws of diabetes, pneumonia and lesions of vascular origin, in addition to infections and cardiovascular diseases.
As if these weren’t enough, weaponization of biologic agents like anthrax birthed bioterrorism – a potent tool in the hands of geniuses like Luke Blackburn – the former governor of Kentucky – who is considered by some to be “the father of bioterrorism” because of his failed plot during the American Civil War to infect northern states, including Abraham Lincoln, with yellow fever. His failed attempts have been successfully carried out with deadlier agents using easier methods that had produced better results.
Naturally, the central nature of health to life, the associated risks and the resulting health dangers that had been mentioned in previous paragraphs ought to compel all and sundry to embrace medical laws as sacrosanct, sacred, inviolable and immutable instructions that are necessary to life. However, this is not so, especially in Africa where citizens are supposedly busier and poorer. Africans have little or no time to sit down and watch a health channel; and booking a medical check up appointment with the doctor doesn’t sound cool on this side of existence!
Apart from the busy and nonchalant nature of the typical African working class, sheer disregard for health indices is another factor. Africa is a highly religious continent, and every religion promises supernatural healing for its members. Also, members who seek orthodox health care to know their fate are often branded as being of little faith.
Gradually, or rather insidiously, the urge to “fit in” and the desire to “belong” has made lots of Africans to become jittery, overprotective and un-cooperating whenever sicknesses are discussed, and medical tests are suggested. Statements like “The Lord is my Shepherd” come from the mouths of Christians, while Moslems chant “Astagafurullahi” at resounding decibels with huge confidence.
Time without number, medical professionals meet patients with debilitating medical conditions that could be easily remedied if they had presented at the clinic sooner, especially when they started experiencing symptoms. But instead of showing up at the clinic for thorough diagnosis and adequate treatment, many Africans often ignore the signs, or prefer to patiently wait on God for divine healing.
When God (or deity) decides not to intervene, the condition deteriorates and advances in severity. This is the major challenge that health care is facing in Africa – it is an unending battle between faith and empirical medical evidence. In this series, the searchlight would be beamed on the various health conditions, especially the dreaded ones that could be detected early, when people voluntarily present themselves to the hospital for minor treatment, or routine check up.
Image via the University of Aberdeen