New challenges, proven remedies
In Lesotho, too, more and more people are suffering from chronic diseases such as high blood pressure or diabetes. In a research project lasting several years, SolidarMed is training more than one hundred village health workers so that people in remote villages have access to vital medical care.
The most common cause of death in Lesotho remains HIV/AIDS. But in the last 20 years, this proportion has significantly decreased as most patients with HIV receive drugs and good medical care. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure.
“Healthcare workers are lacking up-to-date knowledge and equipment to diagnose and treat these diseases,” explains research manager Thabo Lejone from Lesotho. The relevant drugs and therapies are rarely available and are very expensive. “Many people therefore don’t even know they’re sick.”
This is what happened to Chabeli Mokone*. The 61-year-old lives with her children, daughters-in-law and grandchildren in Muela, a remote village in northern Lesotho, where she breeds pigs and grows maize. She only found out that she had diabetes in February this year when community health worker Fanroi Morobe tested the village residents for high blood pressure and diabetes on behalf of SolidarMed. He says: “Chabeli Mokone’s blood pressure was fine, but her blood sugar level was way too high at 21 mmol/litre.” In healthy people, this value should be under 8 mmol/litre. It was therefore clear that the 61-year-old was suffering from type 2 diabetes, also known as age-related diabetes.
“Many people don’t even know they’re sick.”
Thabo Lejone, research manager from Lesotho
The fact that Chabeli Mokone had not noticed any symptoms is typical for this disease as dizziness, impaired vision and wounds that won’t heal only appear after some time – if at all. But even without symptoms, the risk of a heart attack, stroke or chronic kidney disease increases significantly. Early diagnosis and treatment are therefore critical.
Not a disease of affluence
Like Chabeli Mokone, an increasing number of people in Lesotho are suffering from non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure. For example, strokes as a result of cardiovascular disease are now the third most common cause of death behind HIV/AIDS and pneumonia. Twenty years ago they were the fifth most common.
There are many different reasons for this increase: on the one hand, people in Lesotho live longer on average nowadays, also because HIV/AIDS is easier to treat than it used to be. On the other, an increasing number of people are overweight. What is dubbed a disease of affluence in countries like Switzerland, is largely caused by poverty in Lesotho. Unhealthy and unbalanced diets comprising sugary drinks and heavily processed foods are often more affordable than healthy, balanced foods. In addition, people are often unaware of the consequences of an unhealthy diet, being overweight and a lack of exercise.
“Non-communicable diseases urgently require more attention.”
Felix Gerber, researcher at ComBaCaL
“But how could they be?”, asks Felix Gerber, who studied medicine in Basel and researches non-communicable diseases in Lesotho. “Healthcare workers themselves know very little about this, so people are not educated,” he says. But because access to drugs and therapies is heavily restricted in rural Lesotho, prevention is even more important. The young doctor says that these diseases urgently require more attention.
Medical care in communities
For this reason, SolidarMed is carrying out a multi-year project called ComBaCaL (Community-Based Chronic Care Lesotho) with the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute (Swiss TPH), the Lesotho Ministry of Health, the University of Zurich and the National University of Lesotho. The aim is to educate people on preventing diabetes and high blood pressure through exercise and a healthy diet. They should also gain access to medical treatment if necessary. Part of the project therefore also involves training of healthcare staff, adaptation of treatment guidance and provision of medical equipment and medicines.
The project is also a research project. In an initial phase, the team is clarifying the actual incidence of diabetes and high blood pressure in the mountainous districts of Butha-Buthe and Mokhotlong in northern Lesotho. This will serve as a basis on which to respond as appropriately as possible to the increase in non-communicable diseases in consultation with the authorities. The initial results of the data collection show that, like 61-year-old Chabeli Mokone, many people are unaware that they are sick. Others do know about their condition but receive no or insufficient treatment.
A central element of the project is the recruitment and training of community health workers like Fanroi Morobe by the ComBaCaL team. They are taught how to measure blood pressure, determine blood sugar levels, prescribe medicines and recognise potential side effects. A digital app on tablet computers assist them in this process, guiding them through the diagnosis steps, proposing appointments for follow-up consultations and helping with prescribing medicines. Community health workers also learn how to educate communities about the importance of eating a balanced diet and taking regular exercise.
Building on past successes
In the next three years, a total of over 100 such community health workers in Butha-Buthe and Mokhotlong will educate people in their homes, carry out tests and provide access to treatment where necessary. In a test group and a main study, various approaches are to be compared.
This sort of care delivered by community health workers is nothing new: the approach has already been used for a number of years in Lesotho in the field of HIV/AIDS and has been instrumental in containing the epidemic. Community health workers reach significantly more people this way than if villagers have to travel a long way to a health centre. This positive experience should now help with diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure which would go undetected for a long time without screenings.
Community health workers also play an important role in supplying medicines to patients. For example, the day after Chabeli Mokone’s high blood sugar level reading, Fanroi Morobe accompanied her on foot to the nearest health centre ten kilometres away. There, the newly trained specialist staff confirm the diagnosis of type 2 diabetes and prescribe the 61-year-old the drug Metformin. In the last few months, SolidarMed has provided training at a total of 23 health institutions in both districts specifically on diagnosing and treating chronic non-communicable diseases.
Since her accompanied trip to the health centre, Chabeli Mokone saves herself the long journey as she can get her diabetes medicine directly from the community health worker, Fanroi Morobe. In May 2022 – three months after the initial diagnosis – her blood sugar level has already decreased to 7.4 mmol/L – which is a good level.
The collction of data in the first months of the project and the subsequent treatment of people with chronic diseases in communities mean additional work for community health workers. They therefore receive a subsidy to the modest wage they are paid by the Ministry of Health. Additionally, in the coming months, community health workers are to be trained on how to earn a steady income in addition to their work as community health workers. This will enable them to work longer term in the communities where patients know them. The ComBaCaL team is currently looking into the business areas that would be eligible.
Bringing the issue onto the political agenda
As with all projects, close collaboration with the health authorities is essential. SolidarMed is an established and close partner in this area, too. For example, previously there were no uniform guidelines on the diagnosis and treatment of chronic non-communicable diseases in Lesotho. There were no national databases either, or templates to draw up reports. The ComBaCaL team therefore worked with the National Programme for Chronic Diseases to draw up guidelines for better diagnosis and treatment. They will initially be rolled out at district level in the coming months, and subsequently presented to the Ministry of Health. On the basis of the collected data on the incidence of these diseases in the country, the health authorities will also be able to provide the necessary resources and therefore better support healthcare workers and those affected.
The ComBaCaL project will therefore deliver important findings on better prevention, detection and treatment of non-communicable diseases in Lesotho and beyond. It is an important step in tackling the increase in these diseases in southern Africa.
*Name changed by the editors.
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