The Telegraph | Schistosomiasis in Zambia
Across sub-Saharan Africa, the World Health Organization estimates that 56 million women and girls are infected by the parasite, which triggers a disease called female genital schistosomiasis (FGS) – known colloquially as bilharzia or snail fever.
In women, the parasites lay eggs in the cervix, which block the fallopian tubes and cause infertility or ectopic pregnancies. The disease can also be deadly: it causes lesions which increase the risk of contracting HIV four-fold, and victims can develop cervical and bladder cancer.
Worldwide and across both sexes, it causes 280,000 deaths annually and has a burden of 3.3 million years lost due to ill-health, disability or early death
FGS is a treatable disease – but in Zambia, poor education, stigma and misunderstanding among the public and medical professionals alike mean many suffer in silence.
At the Kafue river, the congregation gathers on the dense river banks. They know this water is rife with the disease, but believe they are protected.
“It cannot touch us as we have come for prayers,” says the group’s leader, who has a large red cross painted over her white cloak. “We have got protection from God.”
The congregation travelled an hour south from Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, by minivan for the baptism. But for millions, interacting with the infected water is part of their daily routine. Infested pools of water, lakes and slow-moving rivers are vital for washing clothes and cooking utensils, fishing, and bathing.