Sightsavers from the field

Working together to tackle NTDs in Liberia

August 2020

In the first year of the Ascend West and Central Africa programme, partners have supported health workers and volunteers to deliver mass treatment campaigns to help tackle high rates of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) in Liberia.

The coastal West African country has a high prevalence of neglected tropical diseases like lymphatic filariasis (LF), river blindness (onchocerciasis) and schistosomiasis, and a lot of work is needed to eliminate these diseases in all 15 of Liberia’s counties.

NTDs can become debilitating; cause life-long impairments; and impact on people’s livelihoods, social lives and chances of education. River blindness can lead to irreversible sight loss, LF can result in painful enlargement of body parts, and schistosomiasis can stunt growth if not caught early.

Our most crucial collaborators in the fight against these diseases are health workers and community volunteers. They understand communities’ dynamics and customs, which enables them to diagnose the diseases and deliver treatments (via mass drug administration) to the people who need them the most, in some of the poorest and most remote areas of the country.

The Ascend West and Central Africa programme works with ministries to support the training of health workers and community volunteers who are already part of Liberia’s health system. This helps to strengthen the system long-term, meaning trained staff can carry on working in the health centres and communities once the programme has ended.

There is still a lot of work to do to eliminate these diseases in Liberia; however, a lot has already been achieved in the country in the first year of the programme:

A child drinks water from a cup during a drug administration session in Nigeria.

Ascend: fighting disease in West and Central Africa

The Ascend West and Central Africa programme aims to protect millions of people in 13 countries from neglected tropical diseases.

About the programme
637
health workers have been trained
12,052
community volunteers have been trained
5.5 million
NTD treatments have been provided

Meet the health workers who have made this possible

“My name is Mark Nimely, I am the NTD focal point for Gbarpolu county.”

Mark’s job is to supervise activities at the community’s health centre, train health workers to spot the signs of NTDs and report progress in the region to the national health authorities. Mark is also a case finder, and so is also tasked with diagnosing suspected cases in the area.

Along with diagnosing and treating diseases like river blindness, Mark believes that raising community awareness is key to eliminating the diseases: “One of the key points is health education.”

Mark, a community volunteer, stands outside smiling.
Mark supervises health workers and also diagnoses suspected cases of NTDs himself.

In this region, Mark explains, one of the quickest and easiest ways to give out information is via the radio: “If you do this over radio it reaches many people. Producing jingles in the local languages, outlining some of the signs, the preventative measures, what to do not to get it – I think this is also a key factor.”

More focused, face-to-face efforts are also part of the team’s approach to educating people: “We are using the health facility to give health talks and education on the diseases.”

When the health facility first opened its doors, they had several people a day showing symptoms of river blindness, but Mark notes a positive trend towards elimination. He notes: “Over a period of time we are seeing the number of cases that used to present to our clinics and our health facility have been reduced,” which is a testimony to Mark and his team’s hard work.

“I will feel happy when river blindness is eliminated. When it is eliminated it reduces our burden.”

“I am Victor Scott, from the Bono community.”

Victor Scott is a community volunteer working in Bono community, also in Gbarpolu county. Since 2016 he’s been responsible for giving out medication for NTDs, explaining to people what it’s for and how important it is to take it.

Victor’s training ensures that he gives out the right dose of the medicine for LF and river blindness, which are treated with the same tablet. “I ask [their] age [and if they are] pregnant, or seriously sick,” and he then advises that they cannot take the medication if they are. Victor then explains the importance of measuring the patient first, as the dose is calculated by height, not age. He measures each recipient to work out the correct dose, using a dose pole, before giving them the medicine.

In places where health information is scarce, people can be wary of taking unfamiliar medicine. But Victor reassures them that it is safe to take and will mean they can live without the risk of infection.

With more than 2,000 households in the area, volunteering can be tiring work for Victor. But he is passionate about his role, even dedicating some of his evenings to go house to house with the medication. “I don’t want anyone to be left behind,” he says. “My motivation is that I love my people and I love my community. I’m doing this work to save lives.”

A man washes his hands.

Ascend and COVID-19

Read how the Ascend West and Central Africa programme is using radio adverts to support COVID-19 response in countries including Liberia.

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“I am Bob Kaifa, and I have been doing this work for 10 years now.”

Bob is a community volunteer who has helped to give out treatment for schistosomiasis in Bomo county. He is also a student, and so has to juggle his time between studying and volunteering. But Bob is happy to volunteer because he sees the importance of supporting his community’s health.

“I love the work, because it helps to save people. The work is important because it’s educational; it informs the community how they should live healthily.”

As schistosomiasis often affects young children, a lot of Bob’s work takes place in schools. “When we go there we call the administrator’s attention and we introduce ourselves to them. We tell them what we are doing there and why the children need to take the drugs. Then we work with them and do our drug distribution.”

A man writes in a book while children queue up next to him.
Bob records the names and ages of children to keep track of treatments.
All of these activities happened thanks to UK aid’s flagship NTD programme, Ascend West and Central Africa. In the programme’s first year, together with our partners, we surpassed our targets for providing treatments and reaching people with messages about ways to prevent contracting and spreading NTDs in Liberia. Activities were paused just after Ascend’s first year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Find out more about Ascend West and Central Africa

Find out more

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