Aliyah Simcoff’s Spring in Benin

Senior Aliyah Simcoff took a leave from Puget Sound this past spring semester to work on a public health project in Benin, Africa. She’s back. Here’s her report:

This last spring, I took a semester off and was invited to join a multidisciplinary team of researchers in Benin, West Africa research a disease called Buruli Ulcer, a mycobacterial flesh-eating disease that affects mostly children. The disease can be found in tropical climates around the world, but is highly concentrated in certain regions of West Africa, namely Benin, Ghana, and Cameroon. No one knows exactly how B.U. is transmitted from the environment to people, but the disease-causing bacteria has been found in stagnant water and irrigated soil. The disease is not contagious, nor is it fatal – however, if not treated appropriately at an early stage, it can have severely debilitating effects, and victims can sometimes experience social ostracism for their handicap. Developments in recent years have allowed for early stages of the disease to be treated with a series of antibiotic injections. However, later stages often must be treated with surgical methods on top of the antibiotic treatment. You can learn more about Buruli Ulcer on the WHO website here: http://www.who.int/buruli/en/

Simcoff (right) and Gbemadon (center) interviewing a B.U. patient in Tandji, Benin.

For most of my time in Benin, I lived with a family in a village called Lalo, a forty minute bike-ride away from Tandji, the endemic village where I conducted most of my research. Working with a Peace Corps volunteer Charlie Darr, we investigated various aspects surrounding the question of transmission – we shadowed palm workers and other high-risk groups in their daily activities, taking note of where they came into contact with stagnant water, or how they cared for wounds. We also mapped out various high activity points around water, including bathing areas, fishing areas, and swimming holes. Much of our work was in preparation for the team of microbiologists who were to come in the week after I left to take samples and test certain spots for the presence of the M. Ulcerans bacteria. On top of this research for the team, I conducted my own research looking at the links between education and the disease in and around the village of Tandji. In one direction I looked to see how school attendance and scholastic habits affected the risk of contracting the disease – that is, if kids are in school more often, does this mean that they are not out working in the fields or other high-risk areas? And if they did have the disease and were in school, could a teacher be able to identify it earlier and refer them to a clinic sooner? In the other direction, I investigated how scholastic habits and quality of education were affected once the disease was contracted. With the help of local sociologist (and good friend) Bienvenu Gbemadon, I was able to conduct over 30 interviews with  affected children and their guardians.

During my time in Benin, I confronted many challenges that could be expected of any young, white, female researcher. However, my experience opened my eyes to the unique perspective and opportunities my position provided me. From being able to speak candidly and without much intimidation with the female field workers or the children I interviewed, I realized the advantages my position brought to the team. I plan to pursue medical anthropology in grad school, and hope to one day return to Benin to continue research.

Nice work, Aliyah. We’re proud of you.

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