The Time Traveler: Hepatitis and amnesia

23 November 2018
Author   Hugh Ellis
Back in 2013, I had a bout of severe liver disease. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.
Basically, I couldn’t keep any food down for almost three weeks. When I eventually did, it was little more than boiled potatoes or broccoli.
I lost appetite, something the doctors will list as ‘anorexia’, though not the kind linked to mental health problems.
I obviously lost a ton of weight and the healthy melanated glow in my skin. This is not cool especially for those of us who don’t have much melanin to start with.
The whites of my eyes started to go yellow, as the body pushed waste products out of my system by any means necessary.
Anyway, I made a full recovery. Tests were done, but by the time I began to recover doctors were still not sure of the cause. But one common cause of these types of liver problems is known: the family of hepatitis viruses known by various letters of the alphabet.
Right now, Hepatitis E is wreaking havoc through the poorer communities of Windhoek.
As of last month, there were around 3 835 suspected cases countrywide and at least 508 cases were laboratory-confirmed, the Health Ministry said in a statement recently. The majority – 2 657 – were reported in the Khomas region, followed by Erongo with 861 cases, Omusati with 127 and Oshana with 77.
The ministry said 33 deaths had been reported since 2017 of which 14 (45 percent) occurred among pregnant women.
I had medical insurance when I had my hepatitis scare. I had access to two doctors, a GP and an internal medicine specialist, as well as a whole host of other medically trained people to run scans and blood tests.
And most importantly, I had access to toilets, running water and soap and disinfectant of various kinds the entire time. Most forms of hepatitis thrive on poor sanitation, as do a bunch of other diseases.
Cholera, anyone? Meningitis, perhaps? Good old Listeria?
I’m no doctor (well, only a doctor of media studies, which is not much use for fighting Hepatitis E) but even I can tell you that all these diseases will be on the menu if you’re living in a place where the nearest toilet is a kilometre away and not safe at night, where clean water is in limited supply, where soap and other cleaning materials are a luxury on the budget of a piece-work labourer.
If I were in charge of some departments of Government, there would be a massive campaign, in co-operation with community members and especially women, to set up proper toilets, to ensure every family has access to a basic minimum amount of water, to ensure basic things like soap are provided free of charge.
But civil society is equally to blame.
Because I am a doctor of media studies, I can tell you that the media as a whole, both locally and globally, routinely ignore these issues, until there is a big health crisis. Once the crisis fades, the plight of the poor often vanishes from our front pages.
The media should be at the forefront of campaigns to keep the most disadvantaged people in the public spotlight, and demanding politicians treat them better.
Namibia’s rich have no excuse, either. We know we are unlikely to be affected, so we look the other way, rather than bringing our considerable resources to bear to help solve these problems. We drop off our maids and garden workers in Havana without a thought of what they’re going back to.
We don’t like to think of how much our companies pay the ‘lowest’ staff, the cleaners and securities, and where that means they must live. We whites don’t like to think of the fact that our family wealth may have been built on land taken when the more melanated folks were shunted off to the slums.
Not too long ago rich, mostly white, South Africans raised a large amount of money for a waitress to whom a fees-must-fallist was rude at a restaurant. Conrad Koch, the voice behind satirical puppet Chester Missing, sarcastically tweeted, ‘what till these guys find out about apartheid.’
Yes, indeed.
Hugh Ellis is alive and well and working at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. The views he expresses in this column are personal. The second edition of his book of poems Hakahana, is out now, published by Unam Press.


The Windhoek Observer is an English-language weekly newspaper, published in Namibia by Paragon Investment Holding. It is the country's oldest and largest circulating weekly.

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