By Russell Stothard
This week past has been an exciting and especially busy time for COUNTDOWN with the launch of the programme in Cameroon. The event took place during the afternoon of Friday 9th October within the Ministry of Public Health as overseen by His Excellency André Mama Fouda, the Minister. Attending this high-level meeting were several stakeholders representing key organisations involved in control and elimination of Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs). Within the Ministry, I was delighted to be joined by LSTM colleagues, Professor Mark Taylor and Dr Joe Turner, who had been visiting the University of Buea, as well as, by Kate Hawkins of Pamoja Communication and Nathan Kaemena who was documenting the event.
At the launch presentations were made by Professors Louis-Albert Tchuem-Tchuenté and Samuel Wanji who broadly reviewed the history and progress of national control campaigns against the five key NTDs which COUNTDOWN will study. I was also given the chance to present on behalf of the broader cross-collaborations within our consortium which unite both Francophone and Anglophone perspectives. I was particularly honoured that His Excellency spoke in English whilst acknowledging that where possible discussions would take place in French for those able to do so.
After the meeting was opened to the floor, open discussions raised several important issues concerning the harmonisation of NTD control across different sectors within the health system. Furthermore, there were specific television and radio interviews which sought to identify the importance of COUNTDOWN research in Cameroon and how it would benefit those currently living with and affected by NTDs. It became clear that navigating the transition from control to elimination needs careful explanation, especially as our five studied NTDs are in different stages of scale-up of control.
Over the following days these press interviews were expanded into other broadcasts on national radio and TV with specific discussion on ‘morning safari’. This included fielding questions from the listeners and discussing at length some of the specifics of diseases in Cameroon. It was clear that many suffer from filariasis and were asking how to best manage their swollen limbs and associated conditions. In addition, it was noted that greater attention should be given to control of urogenital schistosomiasis by developing better connections and dialogue with those in the reproductive health sector. Looking to the future, empowering women to better understand female genital schistosomiasis is clearly needed.
During the following week Kate oversaw the COUNTDOWN research uptake meeting and I was delighted to see Nathan take so many beautiful portrait shots of those attending. These images will soon find their way into a meeting report and website so we can be proud of those who are working within the COUNTDOWN team, understanding a little bit better the strengths of our team.
On the final day of our stay in Cameroon, Louis arranged for the press to visit a field site near the trading town of Makenene which was approximately a 3 hour drive West of Yaounde. In this region, three species of schistosome can occur, however, through the installation of a water pump just over 10 years ago, there have been significant reductions in the transmission of urogenital schistosomiasis. In discussion with the local chief, it was clear that this brought many health benefits to the local community with those now largely free of the signs and symptoms of disease. I was particularly happy to see this change for the good as elsewhere such schemes fail in the long-term. For example, borehole pumps often fall into disrepair or are used unequally by community members who decide that not to use them in favour of other unsafe water sources.
After searching for snails in the small streams and pools around Makenene to highlight to the press the importance of safe water supplies, I was a little sad to leave this town for it provided me with a little slice of the reality behind which the COUNTDOWN consortium is operating. For me, it is incredibly important to experience a reality of those environments where interventions against NTDs are waged and engage directly with those communities we aim to serve in our research.