My name is Florence Wakesho, I am from Kenya.
I am currently a Medical Parasitologist at the Ministry of Health in Kenya, under the Neglected Tropical Diseases unit within the Vector Borne Disease Prevention Department.
I joined the Disease Prevention Department some time in 2012 – that’s over a decade ago now but who’s counting? Sometimes ten years feels like a long time and when I look at the work ahead it feels like it was only the beginning.
At University, I studied biochemistry and molecular biology but my favorite subject was parasitology so I was really pleased when I found out that I could use my passion to support the Ministry of Health. Parasitology? In short … is the study of all kinds of parasites which are categorized into three but I won’t get into the details now, we can just say I studied parasites, their hosts and their relationship to better understand certain diseases we need to eliminate.
The keen interest I had in parasitology led me to pursue my studies further and work towards my Master’s Degree while I was still working at the Ministry. I decided to major in two diseases, scientifically known as soil transmitted helminthiasis and schistosomiasis that we generally refer to as intestinal worms and bilharzia. I think in Kenya we are generally aware of what either diseases do because I know how important deworming is in our society but you can imagine it wasn’t smooth sailing from the get go.
My focus on these two diseases didn’t just suddenly come to me one day, it was a need that slowly started settling in me as the situation in the posting I was assigned to made me more and more unsettled.
“I work for the people affected by intestinal worms and bilharzia (schistosomiasis).”Florence Wakesho, Medical Parasitologist
My first assignment was in the Lake Victoria region where both intestinal worms and bilharzia were endemic. Every day I would witness people go about their daily chores like fishing, washing clothes and the like almost fully submerged in water and seeing the causes and effects up close made me want to understand the diseases better. After my Masters, the causes of transmission of the diseases was clear to me so I started looking into how to communicate and explain the diseases, the risk factors, the exposure and the impact etc… better to the communities. My focus started going more and more into encouraging behavior change as a long term solution to stopping transmission.
In 2015, I became the Focal Point for these two diseases and even though it makes me the expert, the biggest teachers for me have been the people directly affected by the diseases – it’s a constant reminder that I started doing what I do because of a woman I saw fishing in the lake 10 years ago. Since 2015, I’ve been the point of contact for the Ministry as we work closely with partner organizations and the community to bring lasting change in behavior but most importantly lasting solutions for the affected people.
I consider myself to be a community girl and I believe that my main priority is to speak with the community to really understand their needs first and foremost and be the bridge with all the actors involved in bringing solutions to them. I learn so much more when I am working closely with the communities as we strive to understand what needs to be done; liaising with the people on the ground and the intervention structures that are in place makes me feel fulfilled and for me, this is not just a job.
My journey wasn’t a lonely one, I am extremely grateful to have been blessed with mentors that have been with me throughout guiding me, supporting me and shaping me and the direction I have taken with my career and my passion so far. My experience of working with partner organizations that listen has made the work I do even more fulfilling to say the least because it makes me believe even more in what we are striving to accomplish and that it is achievable for the community I come from.
I met a family a while back when we were on one of our MDA campaigns – that is the mass drug administration campaigns we undertake to deworm communities in affected areas. For many years, their little boy had had a protruding belly and the family hadn’t understood the reason or the cause behind it until we went to visit them. It was sad for me to hear the father telling me that they had never heard of MDA’s or the diseases I was raising awareness about.
“I am a community girl. I understand the community so it’s my job to ensure that their needs are met.”Florence Wakesho, Medical Parasitologist
These kinds of encounters make me realize that even though we’ve made so much progress there is still a lot left to do. The father who lived in a village further away as a daily laborer, went on to explain that because of their limited financial resources the boy who was being raised by his mother was only able to seek help within her means and the boy’s issues remained unresolved until our interventions. When I think of such families it’s a wake up call that makes me realize that often the choice between getting the appropriate care or purchasing food which is often only one meal per day, becomes a difficult one to make when weighed against deworming or medical care. The medical attention that was necessary for this little boy not only required money for the medical intervention but also for transport to get to the facility that could provide adequate care as well as accommodation and the amount adds up when we think of it that way – this only means that the financial strain is addition agony on the family.
In my opinion, we have a lot of work to do to fill the communications gap, to make sure that we meet our elimination goals. Exposure doesn’t only affect the poor even though it poses a heavier burden on those from a lower economic standing. The risk is there whether we are living in an urban or rural area and the more we inform people about the existence of these diseases, the risk they pose, their transmission and exposure risk and how to curb these issues we will be sure to help those impacted and prevent more from being affected because this concerns all of us.
My wish is to have the affected communities fully involved in breaking transmission and empowering them with information, resources and access to what they need, so they can be responsible and equipped to take care of their own health.
For the longest time we’ve been pushing from the policy side, from the implementers side and from the healthcare side but what we need now is community involvement and them taking ownership of their wellbeing.
The work that Florence and the Kenyan Ministry of Health has been doing was recently featured in the Nation Africa. Click here to check out the full feature.