Jiggers. I’d never really thought about them much before. I knew they were a problem. I’d watched a few brief documentaries about the effects they have, how they can inhibit someone’s life. I’d even seen a couple of clips of people having jiggers cut out of their skin, which had momentarily grossed me out. But I’d never really considered the horrific impact they really can have, especially in rural Africa. Of all the needs in the world, all the causal factors of poverty, to me jiggers were never high up on the list. Let’s tackle hunger first, school-drop out, HIV, and so on.
Then my feet decided to host some. And I began to realise.
For those of you lucky enough to never have come across a jigger before, let me give you a little bit of background information: A jigger is the smallest known flea. It lives in sandy areas in sub-Saharan Africa and feeds off warm-blooded hosts, like you and me. They cannot jump very high so mostly attack your feet and ankles. That’s not the gross part. The gross part is this: the female jigger burrows into the skin and can remain there for two weeks while growing several hundred eggs in an egg-sac. The sac creates an itchy, sometimes painful, lesion-like white lump with a black dot in the middle which is how the flea breathes and releases the eggs. Yup. The eggs drop out through the black hole and fall to the ground to hatch. Once the eggs have been released, the little bugger then dies and is often the cause of infection as the body rots under the skin.
I got my first jigger back in 2008 when visiting Uganda. I don’t think I really realised what it was. I thought maybe it was just an infection. I disinfected the area, kept it covered and it disappeared. My next two I got on a field trip in Congo earlier this year. This time I recognised what they were and was so disgusted I ran to my room and dug them out with a needle as soon as I could. Last week I hosted my fourth jigger. Unlike the other three which took up residence on the sole of my feet, this one buried itself under my toenail which made extricating it a bit trickier, but with a bit of Vaseline, Dettol and a razor blade I managed. I also got a photo for you:
I was hesitating about showing you this photo and telling you this story because
- it’s a bit embarrassing, and
- it’s, quite frankly, disgusting.
But then I thought, maybe I need to. Maybe some of you haven’t seen a jigger before or know what it is (consider yourself very lucky!). Maybe some of you, like me, didn’t realise the crippling – quite literally – effect it can have on people who can’t get rid of them.
I was lucky. I could afford disinfectant and a sterile needle or razorblade. I knew, eventually, how to deal with the jigger. I don’t live in an infested area, I only got a couple from a day or two visit to areas which are. I can afford to buy closed shoes to protect my feet. Many don’t have these luxuries.
And so you find many people, like this lady in the photo above, disabled by these fleas. Either they have become infested with so they have given up trying to deal with them, or maybe they have tried to remove them but using dirty implements. This has meant many have become crippled, unable to walk from the pain caused either by the flea infestation itself or by the infection. Being crippled doesn’t just mean lack of mobility. It means many cannot work. In rural areas, where jiggers are mostly found, the majority of people rely on agriculture as their main source of income. Agriculture which requires you to be physically active. If you can’t dig and plant and harvest, you can’t fully utilise your land. If you can’t utilise your land, you don’t get enough crops. You can’t feed your family. You can’t sell extra crops pay the bills. Maybe your children can’t go to school (or maybe your children have been crippled by jiggers too – and can’t walk to school anyway). Maybe you can’t pay medical bills. Your standard of living decreases and your level of poverty increases. Jiggers, in essence, have a hugely negative effect that goes far beyond the immediate physical pain.
And so, by being attacked by them myself, I have become very aware of the problems such small creatures can create. As a result, I have looked into organisations that run jigger campaigns, treating infestations, reducing stigmatisation and creating awareness of how to prevent and treat jiggers. I have realised that it’s not that complicated. With the small cost of disinfectant and closed shoes, jiggers are very much treatable and preventable. You can find out more by clicking on this link which will take you to Ahadi Trust website. Ahadi Trust work across Kenya to fight and prevent jiggers. If you’re in Kenya and want to donate to their cause you can follow the information on the website. If you’re overseas and want to donate, drop me a message or reply to this blog and we can discuss further.
You’ll be pleased to know I am now jigger-free and my feet have mostly recovered from the wounds left from where the jigger had burrowed into the skin.