Thursday, July 24, 2014

First Jiggers Day

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Note: Photo credit for this post goes to Nicole Jorgenson. This post was originally published on Claire's personal blog ( on July 18th, but internet and electricity have been spotty since then! Look out for a more recent post by Nicole coming very soon.

My lack of mental preparation for the day we had in store for us yesterday became obvious the moment we arrived at a local primary school. When our motorcycles pulled up, we were swarmed by around 500 kids shouting “mzungu” and “How are YOU.” Claustrophobia kicked in, but their smiles were something else. We were at the school to observe treatment for jiggers, a horrible flea that burrows into the skin and feeds off the flesh, creating incredibly painful sores that easily become infected and begin to look like small growths all over the feet and hands. When someone has untreated jiggers, walking becomes impossible. At the school we were at, 30 of its 600 students dropped out last year due to jiggers. It is debilitating, painful, stigmatized, and misunderstood. Treatment requires removal of all affected wounds, followed by a thorough cleaning, and this procedure must be repeated several times in cases where the jiggers has been allowed to develop. The organization that we are interning for, WOPLAH (Western Organization for People Living with HIV/AIDs), teaches Community Health Workers to treat jiggers and provides funds for the treatment procedures. We were there to watch this process, gain a better insight into the problem, and witness the role that WOPLAH plays in ending the jiggers epidemic in the Mumias area.

The first girl to be treated was an incredibly skinny little girl with horrifying jiggers. Her mother and little brother were also seeking jiggers treatment, and we were told that the family is too poor to have a home, not to mention pay for the necessary items to treat jiggers. The girl soaked her feet and hands in hydrogen peroxide for fifteen minutes before Mark, the Kenyan WOPLAH intern, and a local Community Health Worker began using razor blades to cut out the infection. Within moments, she was wailing in pain. It was a scream of pain like I’ve never heard before, made worse by the fact that I could neither understand her words nor do anything to comfort her due to the language barrier. The procedure lasted for what seemed like a small eternity (some eternities are bigger than others, right?) and before long I wanted to be sick. I’ve never felt so helpless. When the razor blade portion was over, they soaked her hands and feet in Omo (a soap) and sodium bicarbonate, and then spread Vaseline all over the open wounds. There were over 40 students and community members who had come to be treated, but in the slightly longer eternity that we were at the school the workers were able to treat only a small fraction.

Throughout this process, I continued to tell myself that the pain these people were feeling was a means to an end, and would ultimately save them from a much harder and more enduring pain. However, this condolence became much less convincing when we witnessed the workers put the girl’s bleeding hands and feet back into the same tub with others who were getting the procedure done. We are, after all, working with a group that’s mission statement is about HIV/AIDs. How could they not see this as a potentially tragic problem? We would later read online that transmission of HIV/AIDs from jiggers treatments is an enormous problem. We discussed this with Edwin today, who explained that yesterday's errors were due to the school's lack of funding for buckets, but promised that WOPLAH would practice safer techniques in the future.



One excellent way of reducing jiggers infection is by wearing shoes, a problem that companies like Tom’s has tried to assist with. Tom’s, we learned, did actually donate shoes to this area. However, the shoes were so coveted that they didn’t end up in the hands of those who were most at risk of jiggers. Sometimes, even Community Health Workers kept them for themselves. WOPLAH raised money for shoes and asked Tom's for more, managing to donate some pairs but never enough.

Jiggers is not the only health problem these children face. Many had bald patches that we were told were from ringworm. And yet, they had more energy and optimism than I did that day. All they wanted was to talk to us, play soccer with Desi, and wave for photographs.

Last night, I returned home to learn on Facebook that a friend of mine passed away. I went to bed feeling angry with the disorder of the world, confused about my purpose in it, and sad that I wasn’t at home and celebrating my sister’s birthday. For the moment, my sense of balance has been rocked and I am seeking a new center of gravity.
Promising a happier post next time.

--Claire McNellan 

1 comment:

  1. Sending love to you today Claire. Amazing experiences that you and your fellow students are meeting with each day on your travels. Sending you all the strength and stamina to do your work! Aunt Patty