Every health-conscious person must have benefitted from association with health workers – doctors, lab scientists, nurses, pharmacists, dieticians, radiologists and dentists. In several health conferences and programmes, the advice we get from these physicians is uniform: always go for a check-up to determine the state of your health, whether you’re sick or not. Those near age 40 and older, in particular, are advised to do comprehensive checks at least once every year.
Most of the time, it’s poverty that keeps doctors’ clients away in a country that has no health insurance scheme. For one to complete the normal tests, one needs upwards of N100,000. And the likelihood of discovering one or two diseases after the tests is always high. Next is the treatment. See why the poor are afraid to even go for the tests?
Even the rich and the not-so-poor (I’m afraid to call them “middle class” in Nigeria) are guilty of neglecting their own health. We take our cars to the mechanics at the first sign of trouble. We invite plumbers to fix our bathrooms. When the TV set, computer or generator malfunctions, we always seek the relevant technicians. But when it concerns our health – our life that is irreplaceable and upon which everything else depends – we refuse to pay attention. No irony could be greater.
Ordinarily, many are health-conscious. But we tend to seek diagnoses of our ailments in unorthodox ways. Some choose faith healing. Even orthodox healers recognise that faith healing is real, however. Herbal medicine is another. Our ancestors depended on this from prehistoric times. Africans have allowed much of this knowledge to perish. The in-thing is to study Pharmacy in university without acquiring any knowledge of the roots, barks and leaves of certain plants. Many of the great medicine men of old died without passing the knowledge of herbs to their offspring. Today, 419 healers have taken over, prescribing loads of cash to be delivered to them rather than medicine to be taken by their patients. The Asians have not been foolish like us Africans.
I’m not preaching against orthodox medicine. I can’t do that – it’s what I too depend on. But I also apply native wisdom. Any good doctor would tell you that every drug has a side-effect. You would have noticed that many doctors – those who prescribe basketfuls of tablets, capsules and injections to be taken thrice a day after meals – hardly take the drugs themselves. If your doctor doesn’t take drugs, why receive them from him?
That’s one of the fears we nurse. And that’s why many fail to go for check-ups and possible treatment unless they are very sick. Negligence in Nigerian public hospitals is a source of fear too: some have met their own death on account of negligence. A few years ago, one of my friends went to the hospital to treat malaria when he felt the symptoms. The doctor, a young man like himself, ordered a few tests and confirmed he had malaria and an infection. He gave him an antibiotic – gentamicin, I think – which damaged my friend’s kidneys. For the next four years, he was on dialysis that consumed all his money. By the time he died two years ago, his family was heavily indebted.
Another fear is that of quacks. And quacks are not just those who have no medical certificates. Even some qualified doctors are quacks, thanks partly to exam malpractice, the collapse of the education system, and admission rackets. The universities have been producing incompetent physicians. I know someone who never consults a doctor that is younger than 60 years old.
Then, there are misconceptions that prove difficult to clear. Those opposed to immunisation against diseases like polio, for instance, are not all illiterates. Even trained doctors have helped to spread dangerous rumours that, I guess, are sustained by politics – international politics this time. Have you noticed that the mortality rate among HIV/AIDS sufferers has declined? Twenty years ago, it seemed as if HIV/AIDS was about to wipe out Africans. Perhaps the disease has killed an “appreciable” number of people in Third World countries and now has to be stopped. I learned that a cure has been found for it, but the cheap drug would not be in the market until some pharmaceutical companies in the West recoup their investments in antiretroviral drugs. Who knows what to believe?
Malaria. Everyone seems able to identify this disease. Though it’s prevalent in Nigeria due to mosquito attacks, many have shortened their own life by receiving a wrong diagnosis and a wrong treatment. It shares symptoms with some killer diseases, and, by the time the patient rules out malaria as the problem, the damage to vital organs could have been done. Stress, for instance, makes one weak and sleepy just like malaria. Rather than take bed rest, the ignorant one may ingest drugs that are injurious to her health. Usually, the next suspect after malaria is typhoid fever. The number of positive cases recorded in Widal tests has eroded the credibility of many labs. But, since clean water is a luxury here and many foods hardly pass the hygiene test, people do not bother to seek a second opinion.
Along with malaria, stress could be the harbinger of the silent killer called hypertension. I’m not a doctor but even doctors don’t know the actual causes of many diseases. Hypertension or high blood pressure (HBP), they say, has genetic sources but they have also not discarded tension or worry that lay people often attribute it to. The physicians agree that “environmental factors” play a role. There’s hardly any Nigerian today that can successfully ward off anxiety in everyday life. Unpaid school fees, unpaid rents, unaffordable hospital bills, lack of jobs, lack of food, lack of security, lack of spouse, loss of loved ones, political tensions, uncertainty about the future – who can avoid these stressors?
Diabetes is HBP’s cousin that has been on the rampage also. Many Nigerians in their 40s have high blood sugar levels. Doctors implicate the pancreas’ inability to do its job, but consumption of sugar has equally been named as a culprit. Lack of exercise is also implicated. Sportsmen, farmers, labourers and others who do strenuous tasks – who sweat profusely on the farms or on the fields – are unwittingly taking great medicine. Despite the presence of numerous regulatory agencies, most foods we eat and offer guests are little less than processed sugar: the beers, the malt and soft drinks, the snacks. I wonder why these firms have not been put out of business by low demand for their products. I think Nigerians have to be saved from themselves. And one sure way is by making harmful products very expensive. Tobacco, brewery and certain so-called beverage companies ought to be taxed heavily.
Good health depends a lot on our lifestyle – the things we eat, the exercises we do. Physicians advise us to eat everything in moderation. Bad cholesterol in fried/processed foods is linked to obesity, HBP, stroke and heart failure. We Africans ought to be eating fresh foods – including vegetables and fruit, not processed or canned ones. Sweet things kill.
•Nwamu is CEO of Eyeway.ng