The ‘herbal love affair’ that roils war on measles

The ‘herbal love affair’ that roils war on measles
Namsini Nina was suffering from measles. [Photo: James Oatway]

When one-year-old Mary Adut fell sick about two weeks ago, her mother had no second thought but to think of a quicker remedy from a concoction of traditional herbs in an attempt to treat what she first thought was a mere fever.

The young Adut was never relieved. Her symptoms persisted, and her mother, Rebecca Agiri sank into confinement under stress. Adut’s brother, 9-year-old Achirin Majok, also experienced almost similar symptoms, and that only meant that Agiri had to get urgent medical help.

Agiri finally visited a nearby health facility for professional help. But what greeted her ears after a medical examination was a medical term that was foreign to a woman who had spent almost her entire life in a village setting.

The medical officer at Al Shaba Hospital in Juba had informed her that her two children were suffering from measles, an acute viral respiratory illness that is characterised by a prodrome of fever and malaise, cough, coryza, and conjunctivitis.

When Agiri arrived at Al Sabha Children’s Hospital with two sickly children, she had no idea that what appeared to be malaria symptoms were actually measles.

“I was thinking maybe it was malaria because of the mosquitoes, but when I came here, they said it was measles.” I was worried that maybe I would lose one of them, but now I am not worried.”

The same fate befell a 22-year-old mother of three, Nancy Locker, who lives in Gudele 2 in Juba. One of her children showed signs of malaria and was battling shortness of breath, so she had to seek medication faster.

Lack of awareness

“My other two children are very healthy; I don’t know why this one has been sick so frequently. “He is now admitted and being treated for malaria, measles, and pneumonia,” she explained.

Just like Agiri, Lilian Keji Christopher, a 26-year-old mother of five, told The City Review that she was unaware of any disease known as ‘measles’.

 “I felt terrible because it was my first time hearing about or seeing measles, and I was terrified when the doctor told me that my child had the disease,” she recounted.

“When I brought my son to the hospital, he was very tired, he could not see, and he was very weak.

“I was so afraid that my daughter would die,” she added, smiling, “but now I am very happy, and I give thanks to God that my daughter can now see, her temperature has gone down, and the allergic reactions on her skin have lowered.”

Mary James, Keji’s daughter, has been in the hospital for 8 days, and she personally cannot wait to go home with a healthy child.

Helen, the data collector at the hospital, said some of the parents do not want to take their children for medical treatment because they prefer herbal concoctions. This is an unrolling of the gains made in administering the vaccines to prevent child mortality.

“Some mothers use ash and hot water on their children’s bodies, believing that their children will get better,” she said.

‘‘Other parents fear that if their children are vaccinated with the measles vaccine, they will not be able to give birth when they grow up and this is the biggest challenge here in our country.

“I advise parents not to fear because the vaccine is very safe and it is meant to prevent their children from contracting the disease,” she explained.

Medics say that the surge in cases could be attributed to the public’s ignorance of the disease, with most cases going unreported.

“They [parents] carry sick children and occasionally allow them to mingle with other kids. That is one of the causes of spreading measles,” noted Alisandra Anthony, a paediatrician at Al Shabah Hospital.

“Sometimes we get patients where they are not supposed to be. That is helping to spread the infection,” added Alisandra.

Cases of measles have been on the rise in South Sudan. Over 491 cases of children under the age of seven have been reported in the last three months, according to doctors. This is according to records from Al Sabah Children’s Hospital.

“In July we had eight cases with no deaths. “In September, we had 111 cases and three deaths, and in October, we had 176 cases and two deaths is two,’’ Wilma Syda Helen, a data collector at Al Sabah Children’s Hospital, said.

“We have so far recorded 491 cases of measles between July and November.”

The risk of measles has been heightened by a lack of proper hygiene and failure to carry out the proper preventive measures.

The virus has an immediate and potentially fatal effect on the body. The virus causes a high fever and a distinctive rash that begins on the face and spreads throughout the body. Severe complications can include pneumonia, diarrhoea, blindness, encephalitis (brain swelling), and death in some cases.

Dr Anthony said the hospital lacks the technical equipment needed to keep the children alive.

Experts say measles is considered the most contagious disease in the world. Each person with measles can infect up to 18 others.

Measles incubation lasts between 4 to 12 days and patients are contagious even if they show no clinical symptoms. The virus’s ability to “go unnoticed” allows it to be transmitted to up to 90 per cent of people who have come into contact with the patient without knowing it.

According to the World Health Organization, more than 140 000 people died from measles in 2018, the majority of whom were children under the age of five, despite the availability of a safe and effective vaccine.

Measles is caused by a paramyxovirus virus and is typically spread through direct contact and the air. The virus enters the body through the respiratory tract and then spreads throughout the body.