Bijagós, the paradisiacal islands where the deadliest disease in the world is fought – BBC News

If you travel to the far african architects of Bijagós, you can expect to find a tropical paradise of pristine beaches and lush tropical jungles.

But their islands are not only beautiful, they are too Natural Laboratory That gives a unique scenario to learn possible cures for the most deadly diseases on the planet.

The group of 18 islands and 70 islands on the coast of Guinea-Bissau, in West Africa, is home to 30,000 people with their own language and unique traditions.

There are also teams with wildlife, among which is the saltwater hippopotamus and the gigantic sea that grows in this isolated corner.

A saltwater hippopotamus
Medical researchers have been working for many years in the archipelago.

But the quiet countries also port many serious diseases. Life expectancy in Guinea Bissau is about 60 years and it is believed that in the Bijagós Islands This figure is much lower.

Malaria, a serious eye infection called Trachoma, The Elephantiasis and The Intestinal worms There are some problems in this area.

The largest medical center is located on the main island of Bubaque.

However, the islands can also keep the secret to fight the same evils of those who are plagued.

A Natural Laboratory

Medical researchers have been working in the archipelago for many years to see if they can get rid of some diseases in some of the islands.

The reason that the islands are also functioning as a natural laboratory is His distant character.

While this is a hindrance to some daily activities, it's a very useful feature when trying Eradicate a disease.

A boat heading to Bijagós
The islands allow to measure with care and precision the impact of any person intervent.

Water creates a natural barrier that allows you to buy different Disease control methods No risk of cross-contamination between test scenarios.

In continental areas, people can enter and let test areas, contaminating them and complicating the work of determining causes and effects.

Insulated areas, on the other hand, allow to measure with care and precision the impact of any intervention that is made.

Although there are many archipelago in the world, few have Islands close enough to each other to make it possible to work in them, but at the same time far enough to minimize the Interference during experiments.

There are also several islands of the characteristics that are affected by so many diseases.

People in a boat
Trachoma can be transmitted if injected hands, clothing or flies come into contact with the eyes.


Researcher at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) initially focused on trachoma, an infectious disease that turns the tabs inward. It affects 1,900,000 people worldwide and, globally, is the leading cause of blindness cases You cann Prevent.

Trachoma can be transmitted if injected hands, clothing or flies come into contact with the eyes. It is caused by A way out The Bacteria The chlamydia And, often, it sprays in highly populated areas that have insufficient sanitary facilities.

The disease is present in 42 countries and at one point, in the islands there are dorses where all children have suffered.

Dr. Anna finally examines a patient
The researchers want to know what happens after the disease is eradicated locally.

Dr. Ana Last, from the LHTM, identified areas of high risk of trachoma before treating Complete churches with antibiotics To end the transmission cycle.

The samples collected with swabs inside the eyelids before and after the treatment helped the researchers to detect the disease at an early stage. They are also used to identify what genetic infection types are present.

This may improve the understanding of what happens after the disease is eradicated.

If the trachoma returns, it can be determined by it Genetic beam If it comes from an external source or if it looks at the community.

A city of Bihagos
The islands can measure with care and precision the impact of any investigation.

The results are amazing. When recently started working, 25% of people on the islands have the disease. Currently, only 0.3% of people suffer from it.

This is not just under the elimination threshold of the World Health Organization (WHO), which means that The disease is almost eradicated From the islands, but that the techniques developed now can benefit the world in general.

How to get to the Bijagos Islands

  • From time to time it attracts intrepid explorer, but it is not a typical vacation destination.
  • Getting to the islands can be treacherous, especially in the rainy season, when the storm can come out of any place.
  • The continent's trip takes at least five hours on a small ferry full of people and animals.
  • There are some health centers. The largest one is on the main island of Bubaque and medical supplies are limited.
  • Although medical professionals provide the best care they can, distance and inaccessibility sometimes make it difficult.


Trachoma is not the only problem faced by the people of Bihagos and now it is acting on other diseases that exist in the islands.

Our current focus is Malaria, which spreads when female mosquitoes infected with a parasite bite a person. At first, this leads to Symptoms such as heat and headache But other serious ones quickly appeared. Malaria kills To almost half a million people around the world every year.

Given the prevalence of malaria in the islands, where one of four people is infected, it is not surprising that there are mosquitoes that are very good at transmitting this disease.

LSHTM researchers
Although medical professionals provide the best care they can, distance and inaccessibility sometimes make this difficult.

Worried, we also discovered that some were Resistant to insecticides.

This means that the most common forms of combating malaria – putting mosquito net over beds and spraying houses with insecticides – would not work, which means that an alternative strategy should be put into place.

It's about to be approved New medication, Which is transferred to the mosquito by blood-streaming the victim when it bites.

Previous treatments have tended to attack malaria parasite in the human body. But this medicine attacks both the mosquito and malaria parasite, focuses its life.

In this test, all islands will receive standard control tools such as mosquito nets. Some, the islands where there is an "intervention", will also get the medication. Others, the "control" islands, will not do it.

A team of local eyewitnesses was Trained in medical skills, How to take blood samples and process them to detect malaria.

They also taught how to collect and identify mosquitoes, with the help of Ba, a man of our field team who hopes to become the insoluble of islands or insects.

Looking ahead

It remains to be seen if this medication will eliminate malaria on the islands and for all.

In any way, it is likely that the lessons of our studies have taught an impact far from the remote biogas islands.

Each study helps us learn about the disease itself and how it is transmitted, which will form the future research.

On the islands, this can be fast, with greater control and precision. We can see what the effects are in a defined area that reaches the entire population.

The LSHTM project will continue in Bijagós for at least another five years and, in the meantime, its findings are likely to be used to address main disease, such as malaria, elsewhere.

*About this piece

This piece of analysis was commissioned by the BBC to an expert who works for an external organization. The two-year study on the elimination of infectious diseases in the islands was funded by the UK Research and Innovation Organization.

Professor James Logan is head of the Department of Disease Control at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Follow him on Twitter at @ProfJamesLogan.

Text E-Itadored by Elizabeth Laurie.

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