YAOUNDE - Today is World Sickle Cell Day. Cameroon is raising awareness of the disease and asking couples to carry out genotype test before getting married to avoid the disease - a genetic disorder primarily seen in people of African descent. A campaign against the fading age-long superstitious belief that sickle cell is divine punishment for wrong doing and children with the disease are mysterious children has been launched.
Teke Marcel, 27, has been living with sickle cell, a disorder in which red blood cells contain an abnormal type of hemoglobin. He said he has joined a hundred other patients to march in Yaounde to demand changes in the health care system to help people with this type of chronic disease. He said an average total cost of care is about $1,000 in Cameroon.
"What we need at the hospital is some reduction in medical laboratory tests, then also we need the hospitals to give us some reductions in our hospital bills," said Marcel.
Dr. Caroline Ndzana, who treats sickle cell patients, said she and other protesters are also pressing to end prejudices against people living with the disease. She said many Cameroonians believed sickle cell patients suffer from some divine punishment for their or their parents' wrong doing and are abandoned to die.
"We come together so that the government can know that this is a public health problem and it has to be dealt with. Many people are ashamed to talk about it, many people are just you know asking what is sickle cell, how does it affect people? It is genetic, which means that you inherit it if your parents have the treats. Most of these treats are found in Africa," she said.
Dr. Ndzana said it was possible to eradicate the disease if people carry out medical consultations before marriages and before making babies. She said those who were already sick could live with the disease thanks to advanced medical research.
"It is very very expensive to cure because you would have a bone marrow transplant. It is the bone marrow that produces red blood cells. You have to transplant that bone marrow so that it starts producing the normal type of red blood cells. Research is still going on but to be honest with you, if you manage sickle cell well, you can survive up to 50, 60, 70 years."
Krista Tomo, an official of Sickle Cell Friends, a non-governmental organization that helps people stricken with the disease, said they were encouraging people to participate in control programs as a sure means of eradicating sickle cell.
"My role as a regional care adviser is to encourage people to be tested. We have to do something about it. We need hematologists so that instead of thinking that sickle cell is a curse, the stigma is there, being labelled as witchcraft, people don't understand so we need to raise awareness and educate the public," said Tomo.
According to the World Health Organization, prevalence levels of sickle cell have decreased to between one and two percent in North Africa and less than one percent in southern Africa. In Cameroon, Gabon, Congo, Ghana and Nigeria the prevalence rate is between 20 and 30 percent, while in Uganda it is as high as 45 percent.