Sunday, 3 March 2013

Myths about Africa: Diseases and Illnesses Commonly Afflicting Ghanaians by Jacqalyn Butcher

In the upcoming weeks there will be three entries focused on myths about Africa: this is the first of the—hopefully—insightful series. There are many misconceptions about Africa, and since we are now immersed in trying to understand the Ghanaian way of life I would like to take the time to address and refute some myths that readers may have. To begin this series I will discuss some of the misconceptions in regards to the health morbidities and mortalities that are prevalent in Ghana, as well as other African countries. We have completed the first three weeks in 37 Military Hospital, and in this time many misconceptions about the health status of Ghanaians have quite apparent.
Prior to coming to Ghana I cannot count the number of times I was told to “try not to get AIDS."  Even though I acknowledge that the illness and fatalities caused by HIV/AIDS is higher in Ghana than it is in Canada, it is important to note that the prevalence is highly exaggerated: the World Health Organization (2006) found the prevalence of HIV/AIDS to be 3.1% and the mortality rate primarily caused by HIV/AIDS to be 141 in 100 000 (0.00141%). This may shock many readers with the incidence of HIV/AIDS being overstated in many casual conversations about African countries.
HIV/AIDS is probably the communicable disease most commonly overstated when discussing African nations, but it is not the only one. I will not deny that there are many causes of death in Ghana that would rarely, if ever, cause morbidities and mortalities in Canada. Some potentially fatal illnesses significantly more common in Ghana include malaria, meningitis, and cholera, among others. However, the most common morbidities that we have encountered so far are quite similar to those in Canada. During our rotation on the Medical Surgical Emergency my colleagues and I noticed a trend in fatalities and morbidities caused by non-communicable diseases secondary to hypertension. Hypertension also causes severe complications in other populations such as pregnant women.  There are many secondary illnesses that occur in the general public as a result of uncontrolled blood pressure, including: cerebrovascular attacks (strokes), hemorrhages (excessive blood loss) and congestive heart failure, among others. Sounds similar to Canada, eh? In fact, the causes of death in Ghana are quite similar to Canada according to recent statistics: stroke, heart disease, unintentional injuries, influenza and pneumonia, respiratory/lung diseases and kidney disease have all been found to be within the top 10 causes of death in both countries (Government of Canada, 2012; World Life Expectancy, 2010). The causes of such conditions are also similar, including poor diet, sedentary lifestyles, alcohol overuse, etc. It is interesting to compare the two nations and find that there may be more similarities between Canada and Ghana than many of us had previously thought or even considered.  However, it is important to note that chronic hypertensive issues did not always exist: there have been many socio-economic that have contributed to the hypertension epidemic. According to Chapman, urbanization and integration of many Western practices in the African lifestyle have lead to decreased physical activity and poor dietary habits, respectively (as cited in Belue et al., 2009). This is crucial in understanding the source for the dramatic rise in cardiovascular complications in Ghana.
In addition to the more recent rise in hypertension complications, the most debilitating difference apparent between Ghana and North America is the limited access to necessary resources, lack of education available to the general public and critical staffing shortages within Ghana.  This has had a few crucial consequences: people are unaware or have limited education about their illnesses (cause, prevention, management, etc.) and the severity of conditions once health care is accessed requires staff and equipment that the Ghanaian health system has been unable to provide. Because Canadians have better access to health care and education, they are able to better manage issues such as hypertension, and therefore, are able to more easily prevent further potentially fatal complications. This is an imperative distinction to recognize when comparing the health in Ghana and in Canada.
The discussion of health concerns in Ghana is one area highly misunderstood by many people. There are many reasons for why such myths occur and why they become so widespread. Chimamanda Adichie (2009) provides depth with humor and intrigue when discussing why such misunderstandings occur. Click this link to view Adichie’s “The danger of a single story”:

Belue, R., Okoror, T. A., Iwelunmor, J., Taylor, K. D., Degboe, A. N., Agyemang, C., & Ogedegbe. An overview of cardiovascular risk factor burden in sub-Saharan African countries: a socio-cultural perspective. Globalization and Health, 5(10), pp. 1-12. doi: 10.1186/1744-8603-5-10
Government of Canada. (2012). Leading causes of death, by sex. Retrieved from Statistics Canada website:
World Health Organization. (2006). Country of health system fact sheet 2006: Ghana. Retrieved from
World Life Expectancy. (2010). Health profile: Ghana. Retrieved from http://www.

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