There are few situations in medicine when a single injection is the difference between life and death. Any doctor that was a junior in the days of the 120-hour weeks of the late 1990s knows what it is like to be fast – bleeped to the ward to find a deeply unconscious, insulin-dependent diabetic with a blood sugar of one.
I still vividly remember being woken from a deep sleep in the doctors’ Mess, running down those long corridors in my scrubs at Ipswich hospital only to find a young adult, sweaty and pale with fixed and dilated pupils. I remember staff nurse Nicky holding out their arm as I inserted a green venflon into the patient’s vein. And I remember that wonderful feeling, when the patient began to rouse less than a minute later.
Twelve years later, I find myself in a remarkably similar situation. But this time I am not in a high-tech NHS hospital in East Anglia, I’m in a mud hut in Eastern Uganda. The disease not Type 1 diabetes but plasmodium falciparum, one of the parasites that causes malaria.
A lady rushes up to us with a deeply unconscious three-year old girl in her arms. She is fitting with violent convulsions and biting her tongue. We have only basic medicines and equipment so I put some co-artem in a syringe and give her a huge dose plus some Calpol. At one point it seems like her lungs are filling with fluid. I try to protect her airway but her clenched teeth keep rhythmically chomping on my finger. I inject some quinine it into the child’s thigh and shortly afterwards she begins to rouse and stir.
Two hours later she is opening her eyes and six hours later she is sitting on my lap calling ‘papa’ in her native Lugissu, smiling and playing. The transformation is phenomenal. A life saved remarkably similarly to a diabetic waking up after an injection of dextrose. Despite the overwhelming happiness I feel that this beautiful child’s life was saved it cannot mask the simple fact that in Uganda alone, 200 children die from malaria each day in exactly this way. That’s one innocent life gone every seven minutes and it is not a peaceful death. It is a cruel painful one.
One day I witnessed the most beautiful little girl dying of malaria right before my eyes. I have never felt so utterly powerless.
For me, Joanne represented every reason why awareness raising campaigns are so important. There are up to 750, 000 global deaths from malaria each year despite it being completely preventable and treatable. To me, this is a huge injustice and I feel compelled to do all that I can to help so in 2008 I co-founded SHAPE Africa, a small Shropshire- and Gloucestershire-based charity that has so far distributed 1,300 Mosquito nets to children and pregnant women in endemic regions of Uganda.
I applied for SHAPE to be part of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation’s malaria initiative, and earlier this month I was selected to spearhead the campaign in the UK. Myself and 26 others from around the world will mobilise different faith communities around the cause.
Over the next three months, a symbolic anti-malaria net will travel from rep tp rep in 26 countries including Botswana, Nigeria, Uganda, India, Lebanon and Australia and I am very excited about linking up with the Uganda Net Bearer, Taban Kasega. For every 10 new likes and followers to our social media threads and newsletter e-mails Sumitomo will donate a bed net to Malaria No More. Maybe together, with support from Pulse readers – one day EVERY child under five in Uganda will sleep under a bed net.
Dr Neil Fletcher is a GP in Gloucestershire.