“People need to learn to accept them [people suffering from elephantiasis] and treat them the way they would treat any of your own colleagues. They are beautiful intelligent people just like us all.”
Dispelling the stigma felt by Tanzanian patients suffering from elephantiasis, also known in Kiswahili as matende, can only happen if the society accepts that such patients are normal people.
This condition is characterised by what doctors call lymphoedema or lymphatic oedema; which causes fluid to be retained in tissues due to a compromised lymphatic system, leading extreme swelling in the arms and legs.
It can be inherited or can be caused by a birth defect, although various medical reports show that it is frequently caused by parasitic infections.
Today, I am writing this message to the society, appealing to people not to discriminate those afflicted by this disease.
I have observed, during our recent program for treating such patients, that some of them are facing problems in their social lives—more so, stigma.
During a recent event in Dar es Salaam, I learnt that there are about 600 of such patients. But the question is: Where are they? The answer, as I came to realise, could be: they are in hiding in their homes.
Due to the nature of the disease affecting them, they have poor self-esteem and are often embarrassed by their appearance.
They often hide away in their homes and very seldom mingle with society, knowing it too well that society may not accept them.
They are gripped with fear and distress in the early stages of the disease as the disability begins to affect their daily lives.
On top of all this, such a condition hinders their daily routine, be it in school or running their homes or at their jobs.
Very often, such people are stigmatised by society in rural areas and sometimes even in urban areas.
Those in school are rejected by their fellow students – there is no spontaneous invitation for them to join group activities, and such students end up skipping classes.
It is this same stigma that causes people to exhibit what I tend to believe is undesirable behaviours, such as being anxious towards such patients.
Quite often, accepting to live with it without having to have the additional discerning comments or stares from society becomes a stiff challenge for them.
Having spoken to them, I have realised something. That, without regarding the fact that some of their organs are in bad shape, such patients are actually very beautiful people.
They are very good, not only on the outside but also in their hearts. They are intelligent and humble too.
By the way, these patients are not just in Tanzania. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), there are more than 1 billion people worldwide at risk for infection of elephantiasis.
Yet, one third are living in Africa and more than 120 million people are infected with the disease with 40 million living in our continent; while 44 million people have symptoms of the disease. This data was issued in 2015.
So, my message to all the society out there is, if anyone is having any false impression of the patients due to their appearance, please stop it.
People need to learn to accept them and treat them the way they would treat any of your own colleagues. They are beautiful intelligent people just like us all.
We must not mistreat them as already they are facing their own dilemma of having to cope with such a disease. Any mistreatment causes them to become more distressed and angered.
Now, in this new age and time, Visiting Super Reconstructive Surgeon Dr Iyer came to Sanitas hospital in Dar es Salaam recently to try and help these people.
Dr Iyer implemented a new novel ground-breaking treatment for managing and treating the patients so that they can lead an improved lifestyle.
Elephantiasis or Lymphoedema cannot be cured. But there is a comprehensive treatment to deal with the disease.
Hygiene, discipline, physical therapy and surgical intervention combined, play a big role in the betterment of the patient’s condition, thus enabling them to lead a much better lifestyle.
To conclude, there is light at the end of the tunnel, lymphoedema patients should not feel hopeless. We must encourage them to come out; we encourage society to accept them, and to help them lead a normal life style.
The author is the Operations Manager for SANITAS Hospital in Dar es Salaam.