There’s no quick way to get to Bagurugu, a small farming village in western Africa.
Connected to the outside world via bush paths and dusty roads, Bagurugu is about 75 kilometers northeast of Ghana’s northern regional capital, Tamale, but 24 hours away from the largest medical centers of coastal Accra.
And therein lies the problem.
Remote in location, Bagurugu — and hundreds of villages like it across Ghana — are on the front lines of a time-old battle against a notorious disease with little more medical help than a clinic dozens of miles away that dispenses aspirin, and bad news.
“I found out first hand just how dire that situation can be,” said Beth Davidson, a Peace Corps volunteer and Paducah native, stationed in Bagurugu for the past several years.
Months into her posting, Davidson fell ill with food poisoning that sidelined her for a week, and in her weakened state, she developed malaria.
Although almost entirely eradicated in the United States since the 1950s, nearly 219 million cases of malaria were reported worldwide in 2010 alone, with more than half a million people dying from the disease in the African region, according to the World Health Organization.
“There’s not really hospitals out there,” Davidson said. “For us here in America, if we have food poisoning, for instance, we go to the hospital to get IV fluids, but that’s just not practical there. I could have possibly died in the time it would’ve taken to get me to the capital.”
The disease floored Davidson, who was too weak to even call into the next room of her host family, much less travel the rough route to Tamale for basic medications. Nurses at local clinics could only identify malaria through rapid finger-stick tests, but had no treatments.
Emergency anti-malarial medications were called in to a pharmacy in Tamale by the regional Peace Corps medical officer, and after following a strict regimen of drugs, Davidson came out of the illness OK and with a new perspective.
“Once you go through that kind of experience, and you realize that a little 10-month-old baby sitting next to you could be experiencing that same kind of pain, it really just put things into perspective,” she said.
“I was a typical American. This isn’t something we really think about on a day-to-day basis, but after I experienced it firsthand, it really pushed me to get involved in helping prevent this any way I could.”
The malaria parasite — plasmodium — spreads via infected mosquitoes biting humans and transmitting the disease into the blood stream. Once circulating through the human body, the parasite incubates inside the liver and multiplies, infecting red blood cells.
Days can often pass before the human carrier begins to exhibit symptoms. However, once symptoms do manifest, patients may exhibit a myriad of medical issues ranging from mild to severe, or even death. Based on the severity of the attack, malaria cases are categorized as uncomplicated or severe.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, uncomplicated malaria attacks usually strike in waves of symptoms such as fever, chills, sweating, headaches, nausea, and aches and pains. Severe malaria is accompanied by complications with major bodily structures or systems that result in damaged or failed organs, and blood disorders, among others.
Heading into her second year of service, Davidson made it a personal goal to become active in the regional anti-malaria campaign, and became the local malaria coordinator to provide awareness for avoiding transmission. Davidson was chosen to participate in the Peace Corps’ first ever Stomping Out Malaria in Africa training.
“It’s a part of life for them, they’ve never known life without malaria,” she said. “I just felt I had a responsibility to help.”
Alongside thousands of other Peace Corps volunteers across the continent, Davidson became part of the first corps malaria informational teams mobilized in Africa to help eradicate malaria in 2011. Acting as the boots on the ground, volunteers went into their communities and sponsored informational programs about malaria prevention.
Their best tool in preventing malaria? Nets.
Although many Africans had received insecticide-treated mosquito nets in previous years to prevent malaria, Davidson said it was common to find many locals didn’t know how to use the nets properly, and some hadn’t even opened the packaging.
“We were really battling past failures, because this isn’t their first rodeo, people have come in and given them (nets) before, but weren’t properly informed about how to use them,” she said.
After completing her posting in the Tamale region earlier this year, Davidson returned stateside briefly before packing her bags again for western Africa, this time with the U.S. Agency for International Development.
“Everybody has a responsibility to help one another out,” she said.
Contact Will Pinkston, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8676 or follow @WCPinkston on Twitter.