When a hug is called for!


“I just wanted to give him a hug!”

Sometimes an opportunity comes along that, professionally, is just too good to let pass. Such was the case for SIM Malawi’s Jo Wheatley. Jo works as a physiotherapist at the Beit Cure Hospital in Blantyre but the opportunity took her out of the city to help collect information for a major survey into childhood disabilities.

Jo working with a young patient at the Cure Hospital in Blantyre

The survey is being carried out by KIM Malawi and the London School of Tropical Health and Hygiene, and is looking, initially, at the prevalence of childhood disabilities in two distinct areas, Ntcheu and Thyolo. We were looking at children from birth to age 17 and across a range of disabilities,” said Jo.

The areas chosen offered two very different scenarios. Ntcheu, in the central region of the country, is a thriving township while Thyolo in the southern region is more of a village/rural area.

Before the survey team arrived in the areas, a group of volunteers had gone door-to-door to carry out a screening test. This test was designed to find children with hearing, speech or sight problems, issues with walking and also epilepsy. Those who were identified were invited to attend the sessions and help towards their transport was given. The volunteers then did follow-up to ensure the people who were meant to attend actually did so.

“We averaged between 150 and 250 children each day and one day saw 357 children,” said Jo.

“We saw a lot of children with cerebral palsy (CP), and CP caused by cerebral malaria. There were also a number with ear problems and also Down’s Syndrome and a few with Spina Bifida.

People waiting to see the survey team

“I was involved with children suffering from epilepsy and intellectual disabilities. It was interesting to see the difference, in terms of care and treatment, between the two areas. Ntcheu has a good community development programme in the township and this shows when it comes to how people, especially those living away from the main hospitals, are treated. Thyolo, being more rural does not have the same level of coverage and this shows in the care and treatment of people with disabilities.”

Some survey work still on-going and the next step will be to collate and investigate the findings before a report into the survey will be presented to the Malawian Government and to other NGOs.

But how did this work and the experience impact on Jo?

“On the whole I was fine but there were two children, both in Thyolo, who had a big effect on me,” she said.

The survey team at work

“One was a six-year-old who was suffering from meningitis. Just a few months ago he was running around and talking like any other normal six-year-old. When we saw him he was thin and weak and had lost communications skills. Because of his problem his arms had contracted and become fixed and part of this was because people did not know about the simple stretching exercises he needed to keep flexibility in his joints and limbs.

“The second was something of an exception. I was very impressed by the level of care that parents were showing towards their disabled children. Steven and I used to work in Mozambique where you rarely, if ever, see disabled children, and we could never find out for sure what was happening to them so the contrast between the neighbouring countries was very marked.

“So here in Malawi it is a very different story, except for one child we saw. He came in and was filthy and covered in sores and his mother, who to be fair had another disabled child, did not seem to care or just could not cope. I really just wanted to pick him up and give him a hug!

”I really hope that, when the survey findings are published, it will have a significant impact on the healthcare sector and result in better care and treatment of children with disabilities,” she said.