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Column: 'Sleeping sickness' is devastating small African communities – I need to show them they're not forgotten

Barrie Rooney, a biomedical analyst from Co Leitrim, explains what motivates her to travel to remote areas of Africa to treat patients suffering from sleeping sickness – and how her Irish culture helps her connect with the people she helps.

Barrie Rooney

Barrie Rooney, a biomedical analyst from Co Leitrim is swapping her lecturing job in the UK and heading ‘on mission’ to South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo with Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

A specialist in the rare tropical disease ‘sleeping sickness’ (Human African Trypanosomiasis, HAT), Barrie will work with the Nobel Prize-winning medical aid organisation as part of a small mobile HAT team travelling to remote areas in the centre of Africa to diagnose and treat patients suffering from this disease – which is ultimately fatal without treatment.

Three months of living out of a tent and arduous journeys by jeep and dugout canoe ahead, Barrie explains what motivates her to undertake such a challenge and how her Irish culture helps her connect with the people she helps…

My everyday work involves research and teaching of the latest discoveries in biotechnology. Even in my lifetime huge strides have been taken in our understanding of the biological and medical world but it seems selfish not to pass on our knowledge and discoveries to everyone in need. I’m motivated by the unmet needs of poor, remote populations who are less fortunate than ourselves. MSF gives me the opportunity to go to places where people do not have access to basic medical care. The work is tough but also very rewarding.

Coming from a village in the west of Ireland I appreciate how lucky I have been to have a culturally-rich background, and how I enjoy spreading the benefits of this richness. This extends to music, dancing, art as well as developments in science. I bring as much music as possible with me when I go on mission, and like to introduce jigs and reels to the locals. Children love to learn new dances wherever you go in the world!

The impact of illness in small communities is something I can identify with

Sleeping sickness is found Sub-Saharan Africa in humid forested areas far away from capital cities. Healthcare is often sparse and communities may have been uprooted by war. We as the HAT mobile team can fly for up to five hours from the capital, then change into a jeep for a few hours on dirt roads and finally take a boat trip to remote villages without road access. Then we spend up to three weeks going from village to village by pirogue (dugout canoe). Luckily I’ve no problem with basic accommodation, as we frequently camp in tents and our ‘facilities’ are pit latrines. One thing I do miss when I’m away though, apart from my family and friends of course, is a decent cup of tea.

Sleeping sickness is caused by a very small parasite which is carried by a little black fly which lives close to rivers (tsetse fly); humans get infected when they are bitten by the fly. The person may not realise they have the parasite for many months as they may only have a mild fever. However the parasite eventually goes to the brain (disrupting sleep rhythms, hence giving the disease its name) and will eventually lead to a slow, painful death within a year or two if the person doesn’t receive treatment. The person also acts as a reservoir for the disease in the local community because another tsetse fly could bite them and carry the parasite to someone else. The social and economic impact of long-term illness in these small communities is major and is something I can identify with coming from a small village myself. Our mobile team trains locals to recognise symptoms of sleeping sickness themselves as well as identifying and treating those who have the disease right now.

Sometimes we are too late

There can be low points doing this work such as when we arrive too late to help someone already with the disease. Last summer we visited a village in Central African Republic where an 11-year-old girl, Natascha, had had sleeping sickness for six months. Her family were too poor to travel the long distance to a health centre and the disease had progressed. Although all we could do was relieve her pain at the end, her family were very grateful for our efforts. They were also keen for us to use her name as an example of a case that shouldn’t happen in this day and age.

Natascha, 11, passed away as a result of Sleeping Sickness. Image: MSF

They need to know the world hasn’t forgotten them

On the other hand, when we do reach people on time, we can treat and totally remove all neurological symptoms and hence the treatment is often referred to as the ‘resurrection drug’. People brought in on stretchers can, after 10 days on a drip, walk out of the hospital by themselves fully cured. It’s like magic. The mobile HAT team focus on sleeping sickness – but even if we are unable to deal with the wider range of problems these populations may have, they feel at least someone is listening to them and the outside world has not forgotten their plight. The friendliness, generosity and gratitude of the communities is amazing to experience.

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It’s 10 years since my first sleeping sickness project with MSF and have travelled to the Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Chad with the mobile HAT team. I have seen a real decrease in levels of the disease over that time: in 1998 there were 300,000 new cases per year, today that’s been reduced to around 50,000 to 70,000, which is really encouraging. It may be possible in near future to completely eliminate this parasite as a threat to the health of millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa. The mobile team I work for are at the centre of this bold challenge.”

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If you’re interested in volunteering with or donating to MSF Ireland, please visit www.msf.ie

About the author:

Barrie Rooney

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