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Nigerian Woman a Pillar for Community Health

  • Kate Orji, a longtime volunteer in southern Nigeria, heads out into her community to distribute medications to treat river blindness and lymphatic filariasis. (All photos: The Carter Center/R. McDowell, except where noted)

  • Orji stops at one household to provide treatments to several young people. (Photo: The Carter Center)

  • After providing the medication, Orji makes notes about who was treated and when, so no community members are missed.

  • Stella Chibueze (right), a community drug distributor in the village next to Orji’s, talks to Onyekaozuru Ibezim about the diseases the drugs treat. Health education is an essential part of mass drug distribution.

  • Chibueze measures the height a woman in her village to determine proper dosage of medication.

Kate Orji grabs a tall measuring stick and large black plastic bag before heading across her front yard and through the gate of her family’s compound. It’s midday in this southern Nigeria community, and the air is hot and sticky. Orji knocks on her neighbor’s door and explains why she’s here, unpacking her bag to reveal two logbooks, a flipbook, two drug bottles, a spoon, and a pen.

“I have been a CDD since 1995,” she said proudly. A CDD is a community-directed distributor, meaning she provides drug treatments to her neighbors in Umudurudu village to prevent disease. She has given immunizations in her community for a long time, and in recent years added river blindness and lymphatic filariasis treatments on behalf of The Carter Center.

The modest contents of her plastic bag are the only tools Orji needs to halt these two parasitic diseases. Targeting river blindness, the drug Mectizan® (donated by Merck & Co., USA) kills the parasite larvae in the human body, preventing blindness and skin disease in infected people and stopping transmission of the parasite to others. When taken in combination with Mectizan, albendazole prevents lymphatic filariasis, a devastating disease that often causes grotesque swelling in legs and genitalia.

Orji visits 86 nearby households twice a year to distribute the drugs, measuring people with the tall stick to ensure they receive the correct dose. Her long tenure as a CDD exemplifies one of the benefits of women in the position: they tend to be more stable and reliable than men, who sometimes leave their communities in search of work or other opportunities. A recent study by the University of Jos in Nigeria suggested that recruiting more women as CDDs would be beneficial because they also are better at mobilizing their fellow community members into action.

Nigeria already has more female CDDs than males in the South. Of the approximately 70,000 CDDs in the nine Nigerian states where The Carter Center works, 57 percent are women.

In Imo state, Orji is surrounded by other women fighting disease. Stella Chibueze is the CDD for Umukogu village, the community next to Orji’s. Like Orji, Chibueze has held the role since the mid-1990s. She serves 50 households.

Orji and Chibueze regularly see Juliana Onwumere, a young woman who coordinates the neglected tropical disease program for the district where they live. And Onwumere’s supervisor is Dr. Stella Olumba, a woman who leads the neglected tropical disease program for Imo state. But women’s empowerment is not what Orji thinks about as she heads from house to house, scooping out pills with a plastic spoon. “People’s eyes get clearer after taking the drug,” she said of Mectizan. “I like my community to be healthy.”

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