One of 10 so-called neglected tropical diseases, schistosomiasis (also known as bilharzia) is an illness that develops when people come into contact with water contaminated with disease-causing worms. These microscopic worms penetrate the skin without detection and move throughout the body causing severe sickness. Its root cause is poor sanitation, including the widespread practice of using lakes and rivers instead of toilets or latrines. Those same bodies of water are used for washing clothes and dishes, bathing and fishing, playing and more, creating a cycle of disease.
The Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs, in partnership with the Ugandan Ministry of Health, has created the Bilharzia Prevention Campaign to encourage people in 43 districts in Uganda to adopt behaviors to prevent the spread of schistosomiasis.
Twenty percent of Ugandans over the age of 5 have schistosomiasis as do 30 percent of those between the ages of 2 and 5, according to a 2016 survey conducted by PMA2020.
A medication that is distributed through mass public campaigns yearly or every other year, depending on how common the disease is in each location, can treat the illness. But this takes care of only one half of the equation.
The Bilharzia Prevention Campaign in Uganda focuses on the other half: prevention. With the tagline “Put a stop to bilharzia before bilharzia stops you,” the campaign focuses mainly on how people can avoid contact with schistosomiasis-contaminated water – wearing boots and gloves when working in the water, collecting water for washing and bathing early in the day when the worms are less active, letting the water stand for 24 hours to allow parasites to die and using well or borehole water for bathing and washing whenever possible.
The campaign also emphasizes that people should take the medication when it is offered and to never urinate or defecate near or in the water.
The practice of open defecation and urination is a longstanding one that will be a challenge to solve – no matter the risks – and avoiding contact with surface water requires huge lifestyle changes.
The Bilharzia Prevention Campaign has:
- Created and broadcast radio ads, skits and call-in shows featuring local health officials with expertise in schistosomiasis.
- Broadcast community conversations from 24 highly endemic districts.
- Translated the campaign materials into nine local languages and plan to translate it into several more.
- Produced an illustrated flipchart about bilharzia for use by health workers and volunteers.