From the bench, onto the field

By Marcell Nimfuehr

In January this year I travelled to Cameroon to make a health promotion film that featured Sylvestre, a patient who motivates others to seek treatment. Sylvestre is a softly spoken man in his 30s and at the hospital in Akonolinga town in east Cameroon he is the master of the television set — especially when there is football to be watched. During my visit the national football team was competing in the 2010 African Cup of Nations in Angola.


Patients in the MSF ward of a hospital in Akonolinga, Cameroon, watch their national football team compete in the African Cup, January 2010. Copyright MSF.

Outside the hospital ward built by Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), about 50 patients suffering from the rare skin disease Buruli Ulcus were huddled around the Sylvestre’s TV to watch Cameroon. There was an almighty cry and shout at every shot at goal, but their pride and hope was not rewarded. Cameroon was defeated.

Sylvestre is an ardent football fan and he loves to talk about his hero, Roger Milla, once voted Africa’s best player. It seems that for Cameroon, every decade holds a challenge and a possible victory. In the 1990 Fifa World Cup, the national team surprised the football world when the 38-year-old Milla scored four brilliant goals, securing Cameroon’s place in the quarter-finals. Never before has an African team performed better in a World Cup tournament. Before Milla and the Cameroon team’s performance on that year, naysayers wrote off African teams as serious contenders. “No discipline,” said some. “No endurance,” said others.

Ten years later Cameroon stood facing a far larger challenge, a challenge against all odds. And here MSF was able to play its part. In 2000, MSF set up its first HIV-treatment programme in Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde, and delivered proof: those first patients leapt at the chance of a new lease on life and stuck to their treatment with determination.

Naysayers again said Africa had no money and no medical facilities, and they thought that African patients lacked discipline to adhere to treatment.

Now in 2010, the Les Lions Indomptables (The Indomitable Lions) and people living with HIV/Aids (PLHWA) in Cameroon are facing new challenges again both on the field and in the treatment clinics.

In football Les Lions Indomptables are qualified to be around the best of the world. But in the match against HIV/Aids, Cameroon still has a long way to go. At present only half of the people in need of ARVs receive treatment. To use a football metaphor: for 11 people on the field battling HIV with ARVs, there are another 11 on the bench, waiting desperately for treatment.

But one out of 11 players develops resistance to ARV drugs. Patients face the old barriers of second-line HIV treatments being too expensive and complex to administer. Again, MSF together with ministry of health set out to deliver not only treatment, but proof that it is possible yet again

As Cameroon’s football fans prepare to cheer their team on to victory, scores of patients are sure to huddle around Sylvestre’s TV again in Akonolinga. And as the Lions find the back of the net a collective roar will go up signalling the pride and hope of a nation for their team and for PLWHA.

Marcell Nimfuehr is the MSF communications adviser for Cameroon