By Paul Schemm
ADIGUDOM, Ethiopia, 27 April 2016 – For Kibrom Mekonnen, the itching was the worst at night, all over his hands and chest and keeping him awake.
“When I slept it just kept itching,” said the 14-year-old, sitting in the examination room at the Adigudom Primary Hospital in Hintalo Wejarat Woreda (district) in the Tigray Region. “But I was afraid if I started scratching, it would get worse.”
Kibrom’s instincts were right because he has scabies, a contagious skin infection caused by mites that burrow along the top layer of the skin, lay eggs, hatch and spread throughout causing terrible itching.
The real danger, however, can be in the scratching which opens up sores in the skin.
“By itself, it is irritating and itchy but it also exposes you to other infections,” explained UNICEF Heath Specialist Yayneshet Gebreyohannes. “It can result in systemic infections if left untreated.”
Drought brings scabies revival
Scabies has actually been fairly rare in Ethiopia for the past several years, but with the sharp drop in the availability of water due to the worst drought the country has faced in decades, it reappeared.
Casual contact, a handshake or even a hug, is not enough to transmit the mites. There has to be prolonged skin contact or sharing of clothes, which means that outbreaks often happen within the tight confines of homes and schools.
With less water available to wash and maintain personal hygiene, there have been outbreaks in the country.
In the Tigray Region for instance, there were 27,000 new cases reported between October last year to March this year, and nearly 10,000 of those were in Kibrom’s woreda.
Since then however, there has been a significant drop in the number of cases due to the Government leadership and solid response and also UNICEF support to prevent and treat the disease.
In addition to providing medicated soap and permethrin lotion to treat the disease, UNICEF has distributed brochures and teaching guides to educate people about how to combat it and most importantly, not to stigmatize the victims.
Stopping the itch
Kibrom thinks he was infected by a visiting relative, about his age, when the latter visited from a rural village and shared Kibrom’s bed about a week earlier.
The nurse examines his hands where telltale rashes have appeared in the folds of the skin at the joints.
She walks him through the three-day treatment of soap and medication and promises to visit his family home to advise them on precautions to be taken and provide medication for the rest of the family.
For instance his clothes will have to be treated with boiling water, as will his bed linens and many of the fabrics in the house.
Kibrom is lucky in that his home has piped water, but when water is unavailable, health workers advise people to tie clothes into plastic bags for three days – the lifespan of the mite.
Kibrom is also lucky because his area was targeted by the information campaign so that someone at school identified his condition and explained to him what the horrific itching was all about. Otherwise, he might have just tried to endure – and possibly infected others.
“I kept thinking it was going to go away on its own,” he recalled.
The scabies response is part of UNICEF’s health, communication, and water, hygiene and sanitation response for drought and flood-affected populations. UNICEF also provides financial support, supplies including medicines and vaccines, and technical assistance to the Government for the prevention and treatment of major causes of childhood illnesses and deaths such as acute watery diarrhoea and other diarrhoeal diseases, vaccine preventable diseases, as well as other diseases such as meningitis.