Tijana Duric looks after the supply planning for albendazole in our neglected tropical diseases unit. As part of her work she travelled to west Africa and met Algueta, one of the patients involved in our programme to eliminate lymphatic filariasis.
Among the patients gathered in a circle, sitting on plastic chairs, Algueta stood out. In her bright red and white dress, she seemed shy at first. But her face then broke into the most beautiful smile.
Algueta’s smile, however, belied years of pain and discomfort. She is one of the 120 million people worldwide affected by lymphatic filariasis (LF), a devastating infection spread by mosquitoes in areas such as sub-tropical Africa.
What is Lymphatic Filariasis (LF)?
One of the world’s leading causes of disability, LF symptoms include chronic swelling of the legs and arms. In its most severe form, LF leads to elephantiasis. This graphically describes the hardening and thickening of the skin that frequently accompanies massive swelling.
Although the swelling – otherwise known as lymphoedema – is enough to prevent sufferers from leading a normal life, it’s the acute feverish attacks that cause them the most discomfort. These occur regularly and can last for up to seven days.
As a result, many people with LF are often unable to work, which usually leads to a life of poverty. Sufferers are also often frequently isolated in their communities, finding it difficult to get married and have a family of their own.
One of the world’s leading causes of disability...in its most severe form LF leads to elephantiasis
Algueta’s symptoms began in her early teens with an injury to her right foot. As the swelling worsened, she experienced severe pain in her right foot, headaches, nausea and fever about once a fortnight. This caused her much distress, as well as discomfort, and the symptoms meant that she could not work.
In desperation, Algueta turned to her brother, who lived in Burkina Faso. He had heard about a programme to support LF sufferers. With his help, Algueta was treated with albendazole, an anti-parasitic treatment donated by GSK, and Mectizan(ivermectin) by MSD.
What are we doing about LF?
We are an active partner in one of the world’s biggest and boldest public health initiatives – the international effort led by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to rid the world of LF.
As part of our commitment, we have donated over 5 billion treatments of albendazole. Our aim is to donate to WHO as much albendazole as required to treat the 1.2 billion people in 72 countries who are at risk from this disease.
A single dose of medicine once a year for five years helps clear the parasite from the bloodstream – thus preventing mosquitoes from transmitting the disease to those who are not infected. But unfortunately, development of the most severe physical disfigurements is irreversible.
Hygiene, exercise and elevation of the affected area are the simple and effective measures currently used to help ease the suffering of those patients with a swelling. Patients like Algueta are therefore trained by health professionals to perform these measures by themselves on a regular basis.
I met Algueta, who is now in her late twenties, at a clinic managed by nurse Madame Kabre. She cares for about 20 patients, helping to wash their legs on a daily basis. This can combat the constant threat of skin infections.
Algueta asked me if I would help wash her leg. I was overwhelmed by the size of the swelling and struggled to reach all areas of it with both my arms. But, Algueta kept smiling encouragement.
Now that Algueta is participating in the washing programme twice a day, her well-being and confidence has improved. She still suffers some pain and feels heat and heaviness in her legs. But, these symptoms are milder and do not prevent her from getting on with her daily life.
Algueta’s story shows how important it is that we keep battling LF. We are currently providing approximately 600m albendzole tablets to the World Health Organization each year until it is eliminated globally as a public health problem.
Together with our partners, we want to consign LF to history by the end of 2020.
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