Thursday, November 29, 2007

Deadly detour on journey to help others

image Initially, I felt really tired and nauseated. Then I couldn't keep my food down. Everything I ate or drank, I threw up.

I knew Sierra Leone was a hotbed for malaria but it took two visits to the doctor before I decided to get a blood test. I was shocked when the test was positive for the most serious of the four strains of malaria.

Since my arrival in Sierra Leone, West Africa, I had been taking all the recommended precautions – sleeping under a net, using bug spray, covering up my arms and legs in the evenings and taking a daily dose of the anti-malarial drug doxycycline.

Soon, nights became unbearable. My temperature bounced between 38C and 39C. I was delusional. Each day, I would tell my flat-mates to be careful when they left for work. I had a sense of impending doom and felt completely at its mercy. My body ached and, when everyone in the house was sleeping, I quietly sobbed in my bed fearful, of the outcome.

I'm sure most Canadians have no idea what malaria is. I'm pleased to now be working as a spokesperson with the Canadian Red Cross to promote awareness of the disease, which affects 40 per cent of the world's population, mostly young children and pregnant women, who are daily at risk of contracting this deadly illness.

Since 2003, the Canadian Red Cross, with funding from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), has hand-delivered 2.5 million mosquito nets to six African nations: Sierra Leone, Mozambique, Malawi, Niger, Zambia and Togo.

There is no vaccine for the disease. The best weapon against malaria is an insecticide-treated bed net. These nets last for up to five years and will protect a child or family from being bitten at night by a mosquito carrying malaria parasites.

The use of anti-malarial drugs, insect repellents, mesh screens on windows and air-conditioning in a house are also deterrents, but these are luxuries in countries where the disease is most prevalent.

I had travelled to Sierra Leone with a Canadian non-governmental organization to teach local journalists the basics of reporting and work with them on human rights stories.

The country was holding its first independent elections since the civil war ended in 2002. The brutal conflict that began in 1991 subjected hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, including children, to mass amputations and rape; kids were abducted and forced to become soldiers. I was there to witness this.

Instead of helping journalists, I was in the hospital being treated for malaria. There I saw people lying on mats in hallways because they couldn't afford a bed. In Sierra Leone patients pays their own medical costs. I was billed for everything, including the syringes that were used to test my blood. My first round of treatment consisted of eight pills and cost 25,000 leones, the equivalent of $10. It represents approximately one-third of the average monthly wage there. A bag of rice is 70,000 leones. Those who get sick must choose between their health and feeding their family.

Malaria has been called a disease of poverty and continues to affect nearly half a billion people a year, mostly in Africa. The Canadian Red Cross estimates 1 million people die from malaria each year.

The disease kills more children than AIDS, TB or any other infectious disease. Every day, 3,000 children, most under the age of 5, die from malaria. That works out to a child every 30 seconds. Staggering.

Shortly after I was diagnosed, doctors told me that I also had typhoid. A few days later, I was near death. I was so sick that I was flown out to the U.K. Once there, my fiancé took me to the doctor on a weekly basis. I was suffering from severe anemia and had relentless migraines, something I had never suffered from.

Just walking a few feet left me exhausted and panicky. I couldn't sleep and I had nightmares about the day I almost died.

Following weeks of bed rest, it was decided that I couldn't return to Sierra Leone. I was devastated. I felt defeated. I had travelled to Sierra Leone with an agency that promotes human rights, only to have my fundamental right to health be violated – a right that is denied from millions of people around the world on a daily basis.

It is a lesson that I will never forget.

I experienced first hand what can happen when you get sick in Africa but at least I had the resources to get help.

Last month, the Canadian Red Cross distributed 2 million nets to Madagascar and Mali. I invite all Canadians to donate a $7 net. It can be the difference between life and death.

To donate, visit malariabites.net.

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