By Rawlings Otieno

Nine-year-old Maclus Mwai, first experienced abdominal pain, diarrhoea, cough, fever, fatigue and enlargement of the spleen when he was in class two.

Frequent visits to the clinic did not bare much fruit for the class six pupil. But what the medics failed to diagnose was a disease considered one of the tropics neglected ailments, Bilharzia.

Mwai comes from Mwea irrigation scheme, a water logged region that produces much of Kenya’s rice. Last week, he was among hundreds of children in Kenya affected by bilharzia to benefit from World Health Organisation (WHO) and Merck group programme to fight bilharzia in swampy regions in the country.

Bilharzia, also called schistosomiasis, is a disease caused by parasites that affects thousands of children living next to water bodies. It is for this reason that WHO has launched free distribution of praziquantel drugs to help curb the spread of the disease among the school going children.

Over 3.5 million tablets will be donated to Kenya.

Speaking during the launch of the administration of the drug, WHO global coordinator on Preventive Chemotherapy and Transmission of Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases Dr Dirk Engels, said that many people in disease prone areas were at risk of getting infected.

“Bilharzia is both preventable and treatable. WHO in partnership with Merck group will administer Praziquantel to at least 3.5 million children in Kenya,” said Engels.

Schistosomiasis can be successfully treated using an oral drug, praziquantel. Though a single dose of the drug can cure the infection, it is not effective in preventing re-infection of the patient.

On contact with humans, the parasite burrows into the skin, matures into another stage (schistosomula), and then migrates to the lungs and liver, where it matures into the adult form.

Although symptoms vary with the species of worm and the phase of infection, heavy infestation (many parasites) may cause fever, chills, lymph node enlargement, and liver and spleen enlargement.

The adult worm then migrates to its preferred body part, depending on its species. These areas include the bladder, rectum, intestines, liver, portal venous system (the veins that carry blood from the intestines to liver), spleen, and lungs.

The programme will be rolled-out in 56 districts in Kenya, particularly the coastal belt and the lake region and areas that undertake irrigation projects like Mwea, Machakos and Nyando basin.