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September 2019

Soc Sci Med. 1995 Aug; 41(4): 501-9.

Notions and treatment of guinea worm in northern Ghana.

Bierlich B.

Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge, England.

Dracunculiasis, infection with Dracunculus medinensis or guinea worm, is widespread in the Northern Region of Ghana, where rural people drink from unprotected water sources such as ponds and small-scale dams. This paper discusses the results of an anthropological study of beliefs and practices concerning commonly occurring illnesses, such as infection with guinea worm (nierifu), in two rural Dagomba communities in the Northern Region of Ghana. The importance of knowing about local perceptions and treatment of guinea worm is stressed. Guinea worm is not attributed to water. The general understanding is that guinea worm is an innate part of human anatomy. It is not seen as an alien presence in the body. Guinea worm is rather said to be 'in people's blood', and sooner or later to 'stand up'. Guinea worm is considered an 'inevitable' feature of living. After a description of the background to the study, the methods are characterized. Brief background information on the people, their environment and their water sources are given. The central portion of the paper focuses on local perceptions of illness and notions of guinea worm ('guinea worm is in the human blood'), which are very different from those of biomedicine ('guinea worm is a disease'). Attention is also given to perceptions of water ('bitter' vs 'sweet') and the prevention of guinea worm. The social limitations to the filter technology are addressed. People's choice of therapy and the role of medicines (herbs and Western pharmaceuticals) in treatment of guinea worm are also considered. The paper concludes with a discussion of health education and stresses the importance of showing respect for the local view of guinea worm, which is said to be 'in the blood'. It is suggested that, since people are not adverse to the use of Western pharmaceuticals, the use of Western medicines to treat guinea worm should be further promoted. The social constraints on filtering must also be appreciated. These relate to the organization of labour within the household and the dominant role of the 'senior wife'.

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