YAOUNDE, CAMEROON - Hundreds of sickle cell disease patients in Cameroon are using World Sickle Cell Day, June 19, to teach their neighbors that people with the disease can live longer, contrary to popular beliefs and stigma that label them as witches who must die before the age of 24. Cameroon says 20% of its 25 million people are carriers of the gene primarily seen in people of African descent. The government is also telling hesitant sickle cell patients to accept vaccinations against COVID-19.
At least 300 sickle cell patients and their family members turned out at the Cameroon Baptist Convention hospital at Etoug-Ebe, a neighborhood in Cameroon's capital, Yaounde. Hospital officials said hundreds of other sickle cell patients came out in the coastal city Douala and the English-speaking western towns of Buea, Bamenda, Kumba and Kumbo to observe the 2021 World Sickle Cell Day.
Fifty-five-year-old Ashu Egbe was diagnosed with sickle cell when he was seven months old. He says he is living proof that people can live long with the disorder, in which red blood cells contain an abnormal type of hemoglobin.
'I am a sickle cell sufferer, I usually tell people that I am a sickle cell warrior because we go through the challenges of life, the pains and we think that we are warriors, we are overcomers," Egbe said. "The younger ones should be courageous, avoid extreme colds or extreme heat and drink plenty of nonalcoholic fluids. You have a normal diet of good vegetables and then you have continuous follow up. You can live a good life."
Egbe said he created Ashu Egbe Foundation to educate sickle cell patients on their rights and encourage people to consider sickle cell patients normal citizens.
Cameroon's health ministry reports that 20% of the country's 25 million people are carriers of the gene primarily seen in people of African descent.
Cameroon says patients suffer stigma, including superstitious beliefs that sickle cell is divine punishment for wrongdoing. There are beliefs that people with the disease die before they reach 25 years because they are witches and wizards. Couples with sickle cell children are forced by their families to divorce.
Twenty-seven-year-old Somo Francis Glenn lives with sickle cell. He says communities should stop abusing the rights of sickle cell patients. He says the government should ask hospitals to pay more attention to patients.
"At times we are sick, but we are afraid to go to the hospital because if you get to the hospital at 7 a.m., you shall be received at 10 [a.m.]," Somo said. "Imagine the pain you go through. Doctors will tell you that you are not the first person to have pain. Those are the things that make us go psychologically mad. I am begging the minister of health to create a hematology center only for sickle cell patients in Cameroon. Our immune system is first of all weak. COVID-19 and sickle cell are a whole lot of problems."
Somo said the government could help eradicate the disease by asking people to have medical consultations before marriage and before having children.
Cameroon's health minister, Manaouda Malachie, said special services exist in all hospitals in the central African state to treat sickle cell patients. He said patients should not fear going to hospitals for fear of being infected by COVID-19.
Lydie Ze Meka is president of Cameroon's National Association for the Protection of Sickle Cell Patients. She says the association she leads is encouraging all sickle cell patients to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
She says sickle cell patients are reluctant to be vaccinated against COVID-19. She says the coronavirus attacks lungs and sickle cell patients have fragile lungs which are constantly exposed to pulmonary infections that can cause deaths. She says on this year's World Sickle Cell Day, she is pleading with reticent patients to voluntarily agree to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to save their lives.
The United Nations reports that sickle cell is common in most of sub-Saharan Africa, affecting close to 3% of births in some African countries.
The U.N. recognizes June 19 as World Sickle Cell Day to raise awareness of the disease, which they say has not been eradicated due to ignorance. The U.N. encourages couples to have medical consultations before marriage and before having children.