|Doctor Gueye in Senegal
Dr. Rokhaya Gueye was born on November 12, 1955, in Bambey, the hometown of Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade.
After her A levels at secondary school, she entered the National Medical Training School and graduated 4 years later, a brilliant success: she was second of her promotion. First, she was posted to Mbacké (North East of Senegal) in 1983 where she spent her early years, then on to Thies and, finally, to Dakar at the Unit 26 Health Centre, as the head of the centre. She’s been practicing for 23 years and is an experienced doctor.
Dr. Gueye became a doctor at a time when women were still occupying the lower levels of society, a time when it was odd to see women become doctors because of social stereotypes and gender discrimination.
When I entered Doctor Gueye’s office I was surprised by the simplicity and the great number of medical posters of all kinds that are stuck to the four walls. The office is different from that of many doctors in town where the visitor experiences a feeling of wealth. Here most of the posters are about malaria, though some of them are advertising medicines for some other diseases. In the office there’s only one consultation table where Doctor Gueye expertly checks her patients.
As one can expect, Doctor Gueye first talked about malaria which is one of her main medical interests. “It seems to me that the greater part of the population still doesn't really know [about] malaria, despite the sensitisation strategies and everything,” Doctor Gueye said. Her biggest concern is the fact that many people still do not really consider malaria as a serious and deadly disease. "Most of the time when people decide to go to the hospital the illness has already weakened the patient considerably; which makes curing them even more difficult.”
Malaria originates from the Plasmodium Falciparum (scientific name of the female mosquito) bite. This is an insect that likes wet zones and develops fast in stagnant waters. This is why there were serious problems last year in Senegal with the big rains that flooded all the suburbs of Dakar. “Nearly 20 out of 30 patients we received at that time were cases of malaria. All the rooms were full. The militaries finally jumped in to help set up tents everywhere to house the patients whose numbers were ever growing. "
That year the authorities had foreseen the danger and intensified the campaign against malaria by organising a “telethon” fundraiser at the national level. The objectives of the campaign were:
- To give more information to people about malaria so as to help them change their attitude towards it and come to the hospital at the manifestation of the first symptoms.
- To buy a great number of mosquito nets and medicines to give out freely in the rural areas that are the most vulnerable.
- To raise awareness so that everybody considers malaria as a national problem.
The results of the campaign were a total success. But a lot remains to be done, as Doctor Gueye says:
“People have to understand that malaria is deadlier than AIDS. Every year it kills more people than AIDS. So they must change their mentality and attitudes towards it by stopping auto medication and by observing permanent prevention measures. They must stop buying street medicines. This is a negative behaviour that doesn’t help practitioners”
“The untimely death of my mother changed the course of my life.”
Dr. Gueye’s mother died when she was still a little girl. She was educated by her elder sister and she does not remember much of her mother. It was only when she grew up and started medical studies that she deduced, from the information concerning the death of her mother, that she must have died from uterine cancer. “When I heard about bleeding in the story I understood that it was uterine cancer. At that time it was not really known.” Consciously or not, this can explain the interest of Doctor Gueye in uterine cancer. In fact every time she examines a woman, be it for malaria or any other kind of illness, she also gives her a check-up for uterine cancer. “Many women ignore that, at the age of 40 or even earlier, they should regularly undergo a uterine examination to detect any sign of dysplasia.”
Doctor Gueye is not a cancer specialist; she just is committed to helping detect it. Whenever she suspects something serious she sends the patient to more experienced doctors with better equipment in bigger hospitals. This is how she has saved the lives of many women:
“Whenever I examine a woman I also take a look with the speculum. This helps me know whether the woman must immediately be taken care of or not. I mostly do this to help poor women who cannot afford the high medical fees of private gynecologists.”
In the past women ignored this kind of disease. Most of them waited till they started bleeding before going to the doctor. But now it is different. There are more gynecologists and more health centres open in the countryside to better address this and other women's health issues.
Birth control, a major health issue in Senegal, was another topic we talked about.
Dr. Gueye explained that after a study conducted in the regions of Kaolack, Fatick and St. Louis, in which she took part, it appears that two-thirds of rural women are now observing birth control. At the beginning they were reluctant to practice birth control. Most of them would say that their husbands did not like it or their religion was against it. These were mainly cultural taboos. Some women even believed that birth control would transmit disease to them. “To fight these irrational fears there was a large campaign at the [national] level to sensitise women. Many birth control centres were built in the regions and a great number of nurses posted there.” This way, women can now enjoy better medical care. Some of them can even practice birth control without their husbands knowing about it.
“I believe that, as a whole, a lot has been done in correctly taking charge of health issues in Senegal. But we still have to keep on sensitising people, creating the [desire] to go to doctors at the first signs of sickness. Raising awareness is the only way we can fight diseases like malaria.”
Story and photos by
Cheikh Darou Seck
Martin Luther King
Girls Secondary School
World Health Organization (WHO)
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This story was made possible by a grant from The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.