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Africa

Ghanaian women take to the skies to fight waterborne disease

media Lydia Wetsi is one of three young women trained as pilots and community … Rosie Collyer

Women around Ghana's Lake Volta are being trained as pilots and primary healthcare workersin an attempt to fight the water-borne disease schistosomiasis.

The women have begun delivering health-related materials to isolated communities around Lake Volta.

They drop specially designed aerodynamic packages containing information on how to prevent schistosomiasis, which is classified by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a neglected tropical disease.

“The disease is particularly prevalent around the lake due to poor sanitation,” Lester Chihitsulo, a WHO expert, told RFI. “The communities that are worst affected lack access to portable water and hygiene education.”

Humans become infected with schistosomiasis through contact with snails that live in stagnant water. Symptoms include fever and passing blood in the urine and faeces.

Children are particularly at risk because of their play habits. Infected children suffer from stunted cognitive growth due to the parasite eating away at their internal organs.

Although the WHO strategy for combating the disease is increased access to the drug praziquantel, Chihitsulo says, “We also encourage organisations to collaborate with the ministry of health in a given country to assist in delivering hygiene education.”

Medicine on the Move, a local NGO, does just that. So far they have assisted one woman in obtaining her pilot's licence and three others are currently being taught to fly so they too can reach isolated communities in affected areas.

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Many of the villages around Lake Volta are several hours from a tarmac road and others are completely cut off during the rainy season. So the easiest way for communities to be reached is by air.

The trainees are not only being taught to build, maintain and fly light aircrafts, the four-year training course also includes modules in community health care. While schistosomiasis prevention is the organisation’s main focus, it also hopes that, once the women graduate, they will be able to fly to villages and give basic healthcare.

“We are convinced that by training women, as opposed to men, they will be compelled to serve their communities,” Jonathan Porter, Medicine On The Move's founder told RFI. “Men tend to leave rural areas and go to the city or abroad when they obtain these kinds of skills.”

Earlier this month Patricia Malwali - who is one of only a handful of Ghanaian women to hold her pilots license - with the assistance of a co-pilot dropped information on how to prevent schistosomiasis to more than thirty villages. “The packages are dropped above school playgrounds to ensure they are picked up by teachers who can read,” Malwali explains.

For now Medicine On The Move’s contribution to the eradication of schistosomiasis in Ghana may only represent a drop in the ocean.

Access to medication in the form of praziquantel has a much bigger impact with more than 33.5 million people being treated with the drug in 2010 as oppose to 12.4 million in 2006.

But praziquantel doesn’t prevent reinfection, which is why education remains a key component in the complete eradication of the disease.

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