Let Us Shine in our make-shift pharmacy
Hannah Currie, the daughter of two pharmacists, has been volunteering at a school in rural Ghana for the past three years. She describes recent work to help set up a pharmacy in the school and the benefits this has brought
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Two years ago, I had never heard of Kpandai, a tiny rural town in northern Ghana. I had always wanted to volunteer in Africa but never had the money or the confidence to try it. Then I heard about pharmacist Fiona Maweuna (née Marra) through my mother, Jan, then a teacher practitioner at Strathclyde University.
Fiona had been one of my mother’s students and went on to volunteer in Ghana after graduating. Her planned five-week trip morphed into a three-year stay and, in 2006, she set up her own school for underprivileged children.
I met Fiona in Glasgow, where she now lives, and in a matter of months I was on an aeroplane to the capital, Accra, followed by a 10-hour drive north to Kpandai. Now with four trips under my belt to the Let Us Shine Girls Academy, I am completely and irrevocably attached to the place.
Fiona decided to focus on girls because many Ghanaian families will opt to send their sons to school if they have enough money, while daughters stay at home to help with farming and domestic duties. The school has come a long way since my first trip. It now has six classrooms, a substantial accommodation block, and its own mini pharmacy.
Fiona juggles running the charity with her job as senior infectious diseases pharmacist at the Brownlee Centre in Gartnaval Hospital, Glasgow, but with over 100 pupils to house, feed and educate, it is a mammoth task and volunteers are crucial to the school’s continued success.
People from all sorts of backgrounds, including students, teachers, doctors, dentists and nurses, have visited Let Us Shine and all have been instrumental in contributing to one of the school’s major priorities: health education.
Death from preventable illnesses is a serious problem in rural areas, and the girls are strongly encouraged to pass on health advice to their families and neighbours when they return to their villages during school holidays.
When the decision was made to set up a school pharmacy, my family and I were keen to help. Although I am a history student (my focus is African oral history), both my parents are pharmacists and, because I have worked in their pharmacies during summers, I know the basics.
My father is a National Pharmacy Association board member and owner of Dalhart Pharmacy Ltd, and he donated a suitcase full of non prescription products, including painkillers, oral rehydration sachets, dressings and antiseptic creams, as well as clotrimazole to treat the ringworm that infects most of the girls at some stage.
We used money raised by other volunteers to buy antibiotics and antimalarials — both much cheaper in Ghana than in the UK. The girls have to deworm at least twice a year because soil-transmitted worm infestation is common and can cause serious health problems if left untreated. De-worming tablets are needed and demand often outstrips what the town’s tiny drugstores can supply, so we usually buy in bulk in Accra and transport them to the school.
The pharmacy also has a huge stock of toothbrushes and toothpastes, donated by dental practices in Scotland. This provides a quicker and healthier alternative to chewing sticks, used by most people in rural areas to clean their teeth.
Some of the older school pupils are undertaking basic pharmaceutical training so they know how to identify minor ailments and prevent them from developing into something more serious. The biggest killer of children under five years in Africa is diarrhoea, which causes 2,000 deaths a day.
Rehydration sachets are available in the town and of course the school, but not out in the remote villages where most of the girls come from and where their families still live. The problem is huge but the solution is simple: education.
At Let Us Shine, pupils are taught how to make a rehydration drink with water, salt and sugar, all of which are widely available and cheap to buy. Volunteers travel to the villages and distribute special double-ended measuring spoons made by TALC (Teaching-aids at Low Cost). A translator explains how to make and test the drinks: if it tastes saltier than tears, it is no good.
In rural Africa, the spoken word is the most common form of communication, and in the same way that traditional songs and stories are passed from place to place and generation to generation, the seeds of health education can be sown, picked up and passed on.
One step at a time, Ghana’s health as a nation is improving, and Let Us Shine is doing what it can to speed up the process. Of course, dangers still persist and death is no stranger to the girls. Many have lost relatives to preventable illnesses.
Even with precautions, Ghanaian nationals typically contract malaria once or twice a year. Although it is usually treatable with a course of drugs, such as quinine, treatment is not always available and, occasionally, in serious cases, a blood transfusion is needed.
Kpandai was recently chosen as the location for a new government-funded hospital with a fully operating surgery, but this came too late for one little girl, the daughter of a cook employed by Let Us Shine. Lami was just four years old when she contracted malaria. She needed a blood transfusion but, despite their best efforts, staff at the school could not get her to hospital in time. Malaria claims a child’s life every 30 seconds in Africa.
During my visits to Kpandai I had become close to Lami and was shocked by her death. In her memory, I began fundraising for a school motorbike so that children could be quickly transported to hospital in emergencies. We surpassed the target and were able to buy the motorbike as well as mosquito nets for every bunk bed in the girls’ dormitories.
One of Fiona’s main concerns is to teach the girls about the dangers of malaria and emphasise the importance of using a net. They are taught how to fill in holes that can collect rainwater and form breeding grounds for mosquitos and, again, they are encouraged to transmit this information to their families.
In September 2010, four years after it was founded, Let Us Shine took on 40 new pupils from surrounding villages. I met them on my last trip, but I know next time I see them they will be unrecognisable from the skinny, swollen-bellied and timid little girls I welcomed.
My next aim is to build up our school pharmacy so that it accommodates their needs. The school will not only give them an education, but a healthy body, a safe place to stay, a better life for their families and, most importantly, a childhood.
More information on child sponsorship and volunteering with Let Us Shine
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Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal URI: 11052433
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