As most of us know, climate change is strongly connected with the amount of water resources that we possess. The relation between water resources and health is also interesting as this topic is not often taken into consideration when talking about water and climate change. The discussion of climate change usually brings us to topics such as environment or forced migration, but rarely does it bring us to the issue of health. During my recent trip to Kenya, which I took with with the European Journalism Centre, we visited many hospitals and talked on many occasions about health. The health situation in Kenya is not very good, seeing as much of the region has become infected with HIV and malaria. While the issue is serious, it is not often that people talk about another health related issue: epilepsy.
Climate change will increase the possibility of been affected by malaria in Eastern Africa (as well as in other parts of the world) and according to a recent study which appeared in the November 2010 edition of The Lancet Neurology, “almost a third of cerebral malaria survivors developed epilepsy or other behavioural disorders.”
On the 30th of January 2011, the first day of the field trip organized by the European Journalism Centre for the winners of the Kenya Trip of the Th!nk3 platform on development, we went to visit the Nairobi National Hospital. Visiting the epilepsy department of the hospital, we had the opportunity to meet doctor Ndege, who studied in Nairobi and did his training in London. It has been indeed a very interesting meeting, in which I learned many new things on the issue.
In Kenya, it is a priority for those working on epilepsy to raise education and awareness. In fact, those affected by it, have to face the local stigmas of the population. Misunderstandings and prejudices about epilepsy are very common in Kenya. Epilepsy is still highly stigmatized in Kenya and many communities believe it is due to witchcraft or curses, that it is contagious, and that anyone who touches the patient or his excreta will acquire the disease themselves. For this reason, as the condition has also been highlighted by some youth that we met, who have epilepsy. Their families are often scared to let other people know about the issue. This is because mose people would be scared of them and would keep their distance. Because of this, the family tends to shame the person affected by it. In many cases, students who fell down during an epileptic attack did not receive any help by their teachers or fellow students. Instead, those who witness the attack often run away for of fear of demonic spirits. It is therefore clear that it is a necessity that we raise awareness on what epilepsy is, how to treat it, etc. What is more, many families decide to not even to bring their children affected by epilepsy to the local clinics or hospitals for treatment, so as not to let people know about it. They often prefer to consult with religious or spiritual experts who try to fight the 'demon' with certain magical powers.
During our visit to the hospital, we met a student who had epilepsy. He told us that when he was at school, the teacher asked him to leave and not come back because he was scared that the student could infect the rest of the class (or worse, the whole school!) with epilepsy. The teacher was afraid he would have no students to teach and would therefore risk losing his job. This story illustrated that ignorance concerning epilepsy also lies among educated adults, and not only among people from the villages or children and youth.
During the afternoon, we visited the “Youth on the Move" project, which aims at letting youth with epilepsy get together, share their experiences, and do something to encourage change in their communities regarding the issue of epilepsy. The youth that we met told us about the difficulty that a person with epilepsy has in Kenya with their families and in their schools. We again heard about the stigma about demonic forces and the shame that these children represent for their families. More and more youth however, are starting to open up about their struggle with epilepsy in hopes of better informing people about the situation. They are starting to talk about what epilepsy is, how to cure it, who you can talk to if you have it, and what steps should be taken in order to deal with it. In the beginning it was difficult, the youth said, to speak out in their villages and tell people about epilepsy, but in the end, many people started to ask them questions so as to better understand it and, in some cases to help others who suffered silently from same situation. Youth on the Move also used media, famous national singers, and the choir of the youth of the association to inform and educate people. From what our group heard, the songs and their voices were very nice!
In Kenya there is a lot to do in order to improve the quality of life there, and it must start with education. I believe that this new generation, lead by Youth on the Move, is making the difference and working on the whole national territory. I hope and believe that it will one day allow epilepsy to be perceived normally, after all epilepsy is normal and a part of our life. Misunderstandings, prejudices, and racism against epilepsy will one day become part of the past. As far as I can tell, Youth on the Move is working strongly and moving steadily towards this goal.