India - Largely unknown in the developed world, Leishmaniasis is a parasitic disease that affects more than 12 million people worldwide. Kala azar, the visceral form of the disease is particularly prevalent in some areas of India, Nepal, Bangladesh and East Africa. Fatal if not treated, kala azar is transmitted by the bite of a sand fly. There is no accurate data on cases numbers but it is estimated there are around 500,000 new cases reported each year and up to half of them are in Bihar in northern India.
Rambabu dragged himself from one private clinic to the next, accumulating debt, while his health continued to deteriorate. Finally he heard from a friend that he could get free treatment at Hajipur hospital where he was diagnosed with kala azar for the first time.
The most common symptoms of the disease include headaches, anaemia, prolonged fever, enlarged spleen and serious loss of weight. Kala azar weakens the immune system making people more vulnerable to infections, and children are particularly at risk.
In order to improve access to diagnosis and treatment and raise awareness of the disease among communities, MSF carries out education and information activities. “These are important because we are dealing with the poorest parts of the population and there is a very high level of illiteracy. Our teams go round with pictures and explain how the villagers can protect themselves from the flies, using mosquito nets, and where they can get treatment and diagnosis,” explains Hari Shankar Kumar, MSF Health Education Manager. A theatre troupe has also been touring villages to pass on the message.
MSF also undertakes treatment camps in other areas in Vaishali District. Treatment camps provide diagnosis, treatment and health education over a 10-day period using an existing primary health centre as a base.