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An untreated bite from a sandfly can kill residents in east Africa. This co-op student is working in Kenya to eradicate the deadly disease

Leah Orkuo with a child in Kenya.
Leah Oruko has been in Kenya since January completing a co-op with the Research on Multi-Disease and Education Services center. Courtesy photo from Leah Oruko

Leah Oruko’s ambitions extend farther than the borders of her hometown in New Castle County, Delaware. They even extend beyond the confines of the United States. 

With a passion for advocacy work and helping others, Oruko, a third-year health sciences major at Northeastern University, plans to become an otolaryngologist (an ear, nose and throat doctor) who travels around the world helping those in impoverished communities. 

She’s getting a taste of what that future might look like as a co-op at the Research on Multi-Disease and Educational Services (TERMES) center in Chemolingot Town in Kenya. She’s working there as a research associate, interviewing local doctors and residents in Baringo County to understand their health barriers. 

“It’s so different being there and living the lifestyle of the Pokot people, rather than doing distant research or visiting for just a day or two,” she says. “It’s so different being in the field.”  

Much of Oruko’s desire to take part in the co-op stems from a trip she took to the county with her father, who was born and raised in Kenya, in 2019.  She observed some of the barriers residents of the country face. 

For example, many elementary students in the country couldn’t afford to buy lunch so they had to go back home to eat. Since some of them have to travel so far, they end up not returning to school for the day.  

The TERMES center was built in 2016 to treat residents of the area suffering from visceral leishmaniasis, a neglected tropical disease that is spread by phlebotomine sandfly bites and is fatal if left untreated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The disease is also called black fever.

The TERMES center is part of the African Centre for Community Investment in Health (ACCIH), a nonprofit initiative formed by Northeastern University and the University of Nairobi School of Public Health in 2011.

Richard Wamai, professor of cultures, societies and global studies at Northeastern and the founder of the TERMES center, said researchers at the center focus on understanding and treating the deadly disease on multiple fronts. 

“There’s work related to the vector that transmits the disease, the sandfly,” he says. “There is work related to epidemiology, which is the distribution of the disease in the community. There is work related to the clinical treatment and treatment outcomes of patients.” 

Since starting, the organization has screened more than 4,500 patients for the disease and has treated over 350, according to its website.  

During her co-op, Oruko has seen firsthand the challenges residents face in getting treatment for leishmaniasis, which is fatal if left untreated in 95% of cases, according to the World Health Organization. 

The biggest barrier she has observed for residents with leishmaniasis is access to emergency medical care, she says. 

Let’s say a person starts feeling sick. Many of the health care centers spread out throughout the country don’t have the proper equipment to adequately treat people with the disease if they are diagnosed with it, she says. 

The Chemolingot Hospital in Chemolingot Town is one of the only medical centers in the region that provides treatment for disease, she says. But for some, the hospital is a one- or two-day walk. 

“Imagine you just got diagnosed with visceral leishmaniasis, and then you have to take this excruciating walk just to go to the hospital just to get the treatment,” she says.

Many in the county get around using motorcycle taxis called boda bodas. But even those can be too expensive. 

Because of those barriers, those afflicted with the disease end up not seeking treatment at all and die from the disease, she says. 

Wamai highlighted the work Oruko is doing interviewing local residents and doctors about the impact the disease has had on the region, saying it is helping the center continue to improve services for residents in Baringo County, which has a population of about 660,000 divided up into sub regions.  

“Given that we have done a lot of work in the different communities in the area,” he says. “It’s useful to update the baseline knowledge of how people are still having challenges accessing services for leishmaniasis.”