BY DARREN DEVINE
Mari Clarke spent three weeks in the country helping those fighting the condition
A Welsh nurse has spent three weeks treating African patients battling a deadly face-eating disease.
Mari Clarke, from Port Talbot, worked in a specialist centre near Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia, looking after people who have had surgery for Noma disease.
The condition is a ravaging, gangrenous infection that attacks the face, leaving gaping holes and is rife among sub-Saharan Africa’s most impoverished and malnourished people.
Up to 90% of those who get the disease end up dead.
140,000 new cases every year
According to the World Health Organisation, around 140,000 new cases occur each year in sub-Saharan countries from Senegal to Ethiopia – a region known as the Noma Belt.
Tissue viability nurse Mari said: “It’s very common in poor areas. It can be treated in the early stages with antibiotics but these people don’t have access to them so the condition goes on to develop and becomes quite disfiguring.
“People with Noma can become very isolated. In the young it can result in locked jaw and they can’t eat. They’re malnourished anyway and they can die of starvation if they’re not treated.”
Two missions every year
The Facing Africa charity sends two missions to Ethiopia every year, made up of surgeons, dentists, nurses and support staff from the UK, France, Germany, Spain and Holland.
Working for free they rebuild faces ravaged by the disease.
The charity also has a centre 15 miles away from the hospital in Addis Ababa, where patients are looked after both before and after reconstructive surgery.
Mari was based in this centre for three weeks and was part of a team of three who cared for people following their operation.
She said: “The charity paid for the flights and the accommodation and food while I was there.
“It was a culture shock. I went out unprepared because it was short notice. The first four days were horrendous emotionally, but then I settled down and thought, ‘Well here I am – get on with it.’”
Mari is based in Port Talbot Resource Centre, but works in the community. She says her involvement with Facing Africa was a complete fluke.
The charity had lost the services of two tissue viability nurses at the last minute and was urgently trying to find replacements.
One of its founders lives in Bath and got talking about the situation to a pharmacist, who happened to be the daughter of one of Mari’s friends.
The pharmacist’s mum contacted Mari and put her in touch with the charity.
Mari, 61, recalled: “I said I would do it if my employers (Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Board) were willing to release me for three weeks. To my amazement they said, ‘Yes’, and a week later I was leaving.
“I’d never done anything like it before, never even contemplated it. But it was a very rewarding experience.
Now appreciates UK’s health service
“It has made me appreciate what we have and very grateful for what the United Kingdom gives us, like free healthcare.
“These people are very poor. They don’t have access to healthcare. They don’t have anything like what we have.”
She added: “They’re such nice people and they’re full of gratitude. They express it in so many ways. They want to give you something, but they don’t have anything to give so they give you themselves.”
Missions take place every April and October and Mari said she would definitely consider going back to Ethiopia.
“I would know what to expect next time and I would definitely be better prepared and know what to take with me.
“The nights were bitterly cold and while the days were quite warm, when it rained it really rained.”
You can read more about the charity’s work at: www.facingafrica.org