Jiggers wreak havoc in Mbeya rural communities

30Aug 2016
Lusekelo Philemon
The Guardian
Jiggers wreak havoc in Mbeya rural communities

VILLAGERS on the slopes of Mount Rungwe, among Tanzania’s potentially active volcanoes, live in fear following an outbreak of jigger flea infestation.

Jiggers are small parasitic fleas, also known as chigoe flea, which usually enter their victims through their feet.

The new outbreak of the parasitic fleas has made some villagers abandon their homes.Jiggers are small parasitic fleas, also known as chigoe flea, which usually enter their victims through their feet, causing parts of their human or other mammalian hosts to rot leading to a horrific death.

Itete is the most affected village in Rungwe District, 890 kms south-west of the country’s busiest commercial capital, Dar es Salaam.

Musa Mwasota is among villagers affected by the infestion.“I had to leave the village to save my life and that of my family. I have moved my family to another village because of jiggers. We don’t know why this year our village is affected with the parasitic fleas,” he added.

He also linked the outbreak of jigger fleas (Tungiasis infestation) to superstitious beliefs.“I couldn’t sleep in my house because of the parasites. So I had to leave my home to save my life and my family because what we’re experiencing is unusual. I have been in the village since my childhood but I never experienced this before,” he said.

He added: “I used a wide range of medications from traditional herbs to conventioal drugs but to no avail.”According to Mwasota, 50 to 60 people have left their homes because of the parasitic flea, which is capable of jumping up to 20 centimetres, lives in the soil and feeds intermittently on warm-blooded hosts, especially pigs, and livestock.

Jiggers usually infect the feet of pigs, which leave behind the chigoe flea as they move and end up infecting those around, including humans.Although fleas are wingless and only average in length about 1/12 to 1/6 inch long, they have powerful legs that enable them to jump up to 8 inches vertically and 16 inches horizontally.

“When I saw my colleagues leaving their homes because of the parasitic fleas I thought it was a joke, but when things got worse I realised that things were serious and I too decided to leave,” Mwasota said, noting that he’ll return to his home after being assured that the infestation has been put under control.

“In a nutshell, people here are confused. There are those who link the outbreak of jigger fleas with superstition but there are also those who disagree. So we are in a dilemma,” said Nicholas Kayamba, a former primary school teacher in the area.

Brown Mahela is another villager who said: “We even asked for help from a traditional healer but in vein. So leaving our homes seemed the only option to rescue ourselves.”He said that the parasites pose a serious threat to villagers.

Village chairman Edson Afwenye described the infestation as serious, forcing some people in the area to flee their homes to neighbouring villages.“We have sought assistance from responsible authorities to address the problem in the village,” he said.

“We’re encouraging villagers to improve their living environment as we’re being told that the parasites flourish in unhygienic environment,” Afwenye said, without divulging the exact figure of villagers who have relocated because of the problem, whose symptoms include itching, pain, ulcers, difficulty walking and loss of toenails.

Ezekiel Mwakota, Rungwe District Council chairman urged people not to always link the outbreak of the issue to superstitious beliefs.

Humphrey Mazigo, a medical researcher from Weill-Bugando University, once was quoted as saying that tungiasis infestation is common in Tanzanian communities living under extreme poverty characterised by poor housing conditions and inadequate health services.

“This problem may cause severe morbidities,” he said, suggesting the need for the government to work on the challenge.
Mazigo, who also took part in the study on “Tungiasis infestation in Tanzania”, said that the disease may cause high parasite loads in Tanzania’s individuals, with consequently severe pathology.

The study shows that tungiasis may cause severe disease and deformation in high-risk individuals living under precarious conditions in Tanzania.

“Tungiasis needs to be considered as a public health problem in poor communities in endemic areas. The action is needed to reduce severe morbidity caused by this parasitic skin in African communities,” the report read in part.

Tungiasis is common in sub-Saharan Africa. It is believed to have reached Tanzania in the late 19th century during the travels of Sir Henry Morton Stanley and other adventurers, from Western parts of Africa to the East.

In modern times, tungiasis has been reported from Tanzania repeatedly in travellers who had visited endemic foci and seems to occur commonly in this country.

There is also a report of the disease from Australia in Tanzanian refugees, but cases reported involved a low number of lesions, and no systematic data are available about the epidemiological situation and the geographical patterns of occurrence inside the country.