Walker: Kenyan girls face real threats of malaria, typhoid

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Editor's note: Routt County resident Mary Walker works at the Tasaru Girls Rescue Centre in Narok, Kenya. The center provides a safehouse for Maasai girls who have escaped or been rescued from female genital mutilation and forced childhood marriage. Walker's updates from Kenya appear periodically in the Steamboat Today.

When I first started coming to the Rescue Centre, I was terrified of malaria and typhoid. For people in the "West," these are diseases of the impoverished, unhygienic, unfortunates and ignorants of the world. After all, isn't a "$5 mosquito net" all that is needed to prevent malaria and "clean" water to prevent typhoid?

Well, yes, but...

A "$5 mosquito net" represents two days wages for a typical secretary in Kenya. "Clean water" might have to be carried for several miles from its source to a home - I've seen women walking while balancing a 20-liter container on their heads, while carrying 10 liters in each hand.

Two years after my first visit to the Rescue Centre, I am very sorry to say that I have adopted the attitude of most every Kenyan I know - malaria and typhoid are considered much like we treat the flu at home. They are simply facts of life.

But they also are serious, deadly diseases.

Fortunately, treatments for malaria and typhoid are in abundance here. Unfortunately, many treatments fail to rid the body completely of the diseases so they are likely to resurface throughout a person's lifetime. This is compounded by the fact that the symptoms of the two diseases can mimic and mask the presence of the other disease. Commonly, a person will test positive (via a very simple blood test) for both diseases.

Being a Westerner, I of course, have access to effective preventives and treatments for both of these diseases. But for most people here, it is not so straightforward.

While consultation at district hospitals is free in Kenya, treatments are not. I just spent the equivalent of $50 for the injections and pills to treat malaria for one of the girls going to teacher's college. Most Kenyans simply don't have that kind of disposable cash on hand so they rely on over the counter treatments (often counterfeit and totally ineffective in actually ridding the body of the disease).

Because often, the symptoms of malaria and typhoid might lessen on their own after a few days, people consider themselves cured. But malaria and typhoid will remain in the body and resurface time and time again for these people. And particularly with malaria, whether left untreated or a new case, each episode becomes more and more serious throughout one's lifetime, causing liver damage and mental impairment.

With the sudden onset of symptoms for malaria or typhoid, I give the girls at the Rescue Centre Tylenol for the intense fever and mind-blowing headaches. This in the hopes that they can get some relief in the time it takes to get to the hospital, be seen by a doctor and get medicine. As long as they can eat something - heavy vomiting also can accompany both of these diseases - I will pump them every four hours with a maximum dose, figuring that the side effects are heavily outweighed by the possible relief.

I've sat with girls soaking wet with sweat and freezing while their heads obviously pounded. It is a horribly impotent feeling to watch as they suffer. As they become increasingly dehydrated, often all that they will take for food is porridge - flour and water with a touch of sugar.

One of the girls in her last year of high school, Caro, had malaria last school term. While I have to trust that the medicine she was given at the school dispensary was properly administered, I worry so much that she might have a recurrence before her exams in November. This could derail her chances of performing well on the exam and qualifying for public university in Kenya. As one of the brightest, most determined and hardworking girls at the Rescue Centre, it would be totally devastating to her emotional well-being if this were to happen. But it is so typical of life here for these girls, that in spite of the opportunity they have been given to break away from horrible cultural practices, their success might all hinge on mosquitoes and water.

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