Vincent Mwangi should be enjoying his youth, but a rare disease has made his life miserable. The 29-year-old from Gitare village in Gilgil has leishmaniasis, a tropical neglected skin disease that has seen locals of Nakuru County suffer silently because of stigma associated with it.
Mwangi contracted the disease at only five years. Then, his parents thought it was a skin condition that would quickly heal, but it spread to various parts of his face and treatment did not cure it.
Life then became harsh for the young man who was forced to drop out of school when he became a laughing stock. “My childhood was lonely, and other children rarely played with me. Some screamed when they saw me while others cried,” he says.
Seeking healthcare in public and private hospitals did not yield much. His parents would seek a herbalist who prescribed herbs that offered little reprieve. In 2017, he met area public health officers who were conducting an outreach programme. They advised him to enroll for treatment. By then, his right cheek had swollen lesions. Mwangi is happy that slowly, the lesions are responding to the weekly injections he has been getting.
Lesions that had spread on his right cheek are drying up.
Meanwhile, he continues to live with stigma. “People think I was bewitched. I hope that someday, society will understand leishmaniasis is a skin disease caused by the bite of a sand fly,” he says.
Gilgil Sub-county Health Promotion Officer Florence Nyokabi says the disease is caused by the Leishmania parasite and is spread by the bite of the sand fly. Sand flies attack mostly the face, which is highly exposed as compared to other parts of the body.
This can result to pealing of the lips, eyes, and nose; then swellings that become wounds. This is followed by itching and skin irritation that is worsened by sunlight.
“Leishmaniasis is a silent disease that can be detected with keenness because it presents itself as a pimple that later spreads forming lesions.
Treatment is most effective when started before extensive damage to the immune system,” says Nyokabi.
James Kuria has been suffering from the disease for 20 years. It presented itself as a pimple on his chin, and he blamed it on a shave had gone wrong. However, lesions would later spread to his nose, eyes and lips. Many thought he had HIV/Aids.
“I undertook a HIV test that turned out negative,” he says.
In 2015, Kuria went to Gilgil Hospital where he was told that he was suffering from leishmaniasis. Here he is treated freely, and finally his healing is noticeable. But the stigma wont go away. Being a small scale farmer, most of his produce goes to waste as people fear buying it, lest they contract the disease.
“At times my produce is rejected because of my health. I pray doctors find a lasting cure to this disease,” he says.
Esther Waithera almost lost her marriage barely six months after contracting the skin disease.
“Rashes spread so fast on my face, my husband thought I was cursed. Poople would run away from me,” says Waithera. Three years ago, she embarked on treatment that has dried lesions on her ears, nose and lips. She has resorted to sleeping inside mosquito nets to avoid being bitten by sand flies and also planting pyrethrum near her house.
Public Health Officer Samuel King’ori says the county government has bought pesticides to spray some 300 households in the locality, to keep away the sand fly.
“Public officers are working closely with administrators to map and spray areas prone to the disease to curb its transmission,” says Mr King’ori.
At least 48 people are undergoing free treatment provided by the county. During outreach programme, locals are trained to repair wall cracks to minimise entry of sand flies; clear bushes around their homes; destroy animal burrows and trap animals that help spread the disease. They are also encouraged to wear long-sleeved clothes while outdoors, especially early in the morning and late in the evening.
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