Surviving Hepatitis in West Africa

Kumasi, Ghana, may not have been the best place in the world to contact hepatitis in May 1980. At that time, I was serving on the academic staff of the University of Science and Technology (UST), and having served for more than nine years in robust health, and taking a malarial prophylactic, I nevertheless suspected malaria when struck by the first symptoms of headache and fever. After a few days these symptoms subsided, but another two or three days brought sickness, weakness and yellowing of the skin and eyes. I was immediately admitted to the University Hospital.

In a ward reserved for senior academic staff, in tropical heat slightly moderated by a ceiling fan, I lay under a single flimsy cotton sheet with a glucose drip in my left arm. There, I was destined to stay for nineteen days. Professors from the Medical School came to monitor my progress and took blood samples, but I was told there was no treatment other than bed rest. The blood test (bilirubin) results soared to 20 on a scale that is 1 for normal health. I was told not to worry, some poor woman had recently scored over 40 and still survived.

The back pain became almost unbearable as the kidneys bore the brunt of the liver damage. The nurses feared to come near the yellow apparition and did nothing except change the glucose drip from time-to-time. Everything else was done by my wife on her frequent visits. No food was provided in Ghanaian hospitals and so it was necessary for meals to be brought in. However, with complete absence of appetite, little food was required. Local remedies were pressed upon the patient, including water in which kenke (fermented corn dough) or pineapple skins had been boiled. The first I found undrinkable, and the second, though palatable, had no noticeable effect.

Slowly reducing scores on the blood test indicated gradual improvement. A return home was promised when the level fell below 5, but that day was long coming. Having lain sweltering for two weeks without ablution, I longed for a shower. Clutching the glucose drip bottle in one hand, I staggered into the adjacent shower room, partly supported by my wife, where I leaned against the wall and turned on the cold water. Release came a few days later.

On reaching home I was incredibly weak. Even mounting the three steps between the bedroom and the living room was beyond my strength. The taste buds were also affected; for example, although I had always enjoyed coffee, for months after the hepatitis the slightest scent induced nausea. Returning to work was conditional on the blood test score falling to unity, and that took another nine weeks. Later, returning to England on leave, I was relieved to find that even the National Health Service had no treatment for hepatitis A, other than that which I had been given in Kumasi.