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A curious epidemic of superficial accesses in Africa

Written by DR William LeMaire · Tuesday 24th June 2014

This anecdote happened many years ago when I was a brand new (read: inexperienced) physician doing my stint in the Colonial Health Service of the former Belgian Congo. I was assigned to a small hospital in the interior of the Maniema province.

Soft tissue infections and abscesses were rather common in this tropical climate, but at one time there seemed to be virtual epidemic of abscesses on the buttocks or upper arms. It seemed that patients with these abscesses were all coming from one area of the territory. That seemed rather odd and we started investigating. By way of background let me say that the hospital was also serving several outlying clinics or dispensaries in the territory. Health aides were assigned to a specific dispensary on a periodic basis. Patients would know his schedule and come to the dispensary for their treatments. Now this was the era of “penicillin.”

The natives were convinced that this wonder drug would cure all their ailments, from malaria and dysentery, to headaches, infertility, and impotence. You name it and penicillin was thought to be the cure-all. No wonder they would like to get an injection of penicillin for whatever their ailment was.

As our investigation demonstrated, the particular health aide assigned to the dispensary from where most of the abscesses came, would swipe a vial of penicillin and a bottle of saline from the hospital’s pharmacy on his way out to his assigned dispensary. When he arrived at his dispensary there was usually already a long line of patients waiting with various ailments. He would get out his vial of the “magic” penicillin, show the label to the crowd and pour it in the liter bottle of saline; shake it up and then proceed to give anyone, who paid five Belgian Francs (at that time equivalent to .10 US $), which he pocketed, an injection of the penicillin, now much diluted in the large bottle of physiologic solution. To make matters worse, he used only one syringe and one needle. No wonder there were so many abscesses in the area of injection. Of course we quickly put a stop to that.

Anyone interested in reading more about my experience in Africa and many other areas can download a free e book via Smashwords at: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/161522 . The title of the book is "Crosscultural Doctoring. On and Off the Beaten Path"

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