Bilharzia – is there still a reason for concern? Kholosa Magudu

The reality is that the state of South African rivers is depressing. The culprits are well-known and have created a myriad of seriously modified, polluted, and infested rivers nationwide. Water-borne diseases such as bilharzia, cholera and others thrive in rivers since rivers are infested with all sorts of nasty pathogens. These emanate from pollution sources like industries, leaching of agricultural products (pesticides, fertilizers), and sewage waste due to poor sanitation. Contaminated water bodies that fall below rural populations allow for the proliferation and infection of host snails (Bulinus africanus & Biomphalaria pfeifferi for urinary and intestinal bilharzia respectively).

Bilharzia is certainly a topic of relevance to most of us. (It definitely should be.) In KZN alone, bilharzia cases are widespread – a very good reason for the on-going bilharzia research of such critical importance for our local communities.
The Duzi-Umngeni Conservation Trust (DUCT) is currently undertaking investigations on bilharzia in the Umngeni Catchment. Recent cases from local clinics in the catchment indicate that primary school children are a high risk group for bilharzia infection due to the fact that children like to swim in local rivers. Regardless of the reduced prevalence over the years, the bilharzia parasite is still “swimming” out there.

Adults are also victims to bilharzia infection, albeit to a lesser extent than children. In 2009, the Department of Health warned that bilharzia may affect the reproductive health of women resulting in infertility. Furthermore, a team of Norwegian medical specialists based in KZN suggest that there is a high possibility that the exposure of rural women to genital bilharzia in South African rivers increases their susceptibility to HIV.

As DUCT we strive to champion the health of the Umngeni and UMsunduzi rivers which are an important component of the Umngeni Catchment. Apart from being concerned for the overall health of the Umngeni river and its catchments an important intervention strategy is aimed at reducing the exposure of local communities to the bilharzia parasite. DUCT’s role in studying the distribution of Bilharzia host snails will enable us to flag to the communities, areas that are potential Bilharzia hotspots. This should discourage locals from water-based activities in such areas. In turn, if these contact points are avoided the number of Bilharzia cases reported will be reduced thus improving human health and river condition.

Many rural and peri-urban communities are which are heavily dependent on river water resources are found within the Umngeni Catchment. This catchment is renowned for hosting nature-based sporting events such as the Dusi Canoe Marathon, the Comrade’s marathon and the Mandela Marathon. By virtue of the fact that these events attract an international audience and participants implies that whether you, the reader of this article, are a river paddler or a swimmer or just a nature-lover, you should be doing something to take care of your OWN local river. After all each one of us is a river-custodian of some kind and each person can do SOMETHING to make our rivers safe. (Kholosa Magudu has a BSc (Hons) in Ecological Sciences. She is a Water Health Scientist with the Duzi Umgeni Conservation Trust.)