Dusty roads causing dangerous respiratory infections across rural Ghana

A dusty road in Sagnarigu Municipality

Sagnarigu, Northern Region – Ebenezer Danso, a 19-year-old battling severe asthma, recently came perilously close to losing his life.

“When I woke up that day, the weather was cold. I had difficulty breathing, was coughing, and couldn’t go to school,” says Ebenezer. For four agonizing weeks, Ebenezer struggled with worsening symptoms, relying on herbal remedies that offered no relief. His parents resisted taking him to hospital.

“When I told my mother I couldn’t breathe well, she gave me herbal medicine because my father, who is also an asthmatic patient, treats his illness with it,” Ebenezersays. It was not until his condition became critical that his father recognized the need for professional medical intervention and rushed him to the hospital. There he was diagnosed with a severe upper respiratory tract infection which had progressed to pneumonia, a lung infection which can be life threatening. Ebenezer spent three days in the hospital recovering.

Doctors told Ebenezer his infection was likely caused by the dust he inhales from the unpaved roads in this community in Ghana’s north, on his daily walk to school. They advised him to wear a nose mask everyday. But Ebenezeris still scared. He worries that it might only be a matter of time before he battles the same predicament that nearly took his life.

“I have struggled from this sickness and I am afraid I will come back to the hospital because there’s dust everywhere in the community and I have nowhere to go to because Sagnarigu is my home,” he says with a sense of hopelessness.

Communities across Ghana are struggling with illnesses caused by dusty roads but this area is being impacted more than most. Sagnarigu, Ebenezer’s hometown, has consistently recorded the highest number of upper respiratory tract infections in the Northern Region of Ghana. Out of more than 430,000 cases reported in the region in the past three years. Sagnarigu Municipality has recorded the highest number – nearly 48,000.

Dust darkens the skies around the local hospital

Road dust carries various types of pollutants into the air that, once inhaled, cause illnesses in the respiratory system, lungs and heart.

“When we inhale dust, it easily enters our bloodstream. The air we breathe contains many pathogens and germs,” says Dr Mark Abugri, director of Health Services in the Sagnarigu Municipal Health Directorate. “Our immune system and the mucous membranes in our nose usually protect us, but when these defenses are compromised, the risk of infection increases significantly.”

Dr Abugri warns that more people in the community will suffer respiratory infections and illnesses like stroke, heart disease, diabetes and cancer if action is not taken to protect them from dust. In the meantime he encourages people to protect themselves.

“We encourage people to wear nose masks, especially during the dry season, to prevent dust from entering their respiratory system,” Dr Abugrisays. “But the best solution is to tar the roads. Until all our roads are tarred, we will always have dusty roads, and consequently, we will continue to see high rates of respiratory tract infections.”

Residents have expressed frustration over the persistent problem. Store holders here inhale the dust and spend the day cleaning it from their wares. “We cannot avoid traveling on these roads. We inhale the dust, and we get sick. There is no other alternative,” says Adiza Giwah, a local resident who has been treated for respiratory tract infections twice.

She says going to the hospital for the treatment of respiratory infections has almost become a routine among the community members.

“I sell by the roadside. My friends from the community always pass by my shop when they are going to the hospital. We have complained a lot but still nothing has been done,” Adiza says.

Hospital staff echo the findings of the Health Directorate. They say treating the illnesses repeatedly has diverted staff time and resources from treating other ailments.

“People come here every single day with the infection,” says Dr Martin Atuguba, a doctor at the Tamale Technical University Hospital. “We are tired of it. They come, get treated and return with it again.”

Dr Atuguba warns that things will get worse if nothing is done. “The long-term effects of upper respiratory tract infections can be severe if not properly managed. While these infections are typically self-limiting, they can lead to complications such as pneumonia or sinusitis.”

Dr Atuguba urges the government to address the issue. “It’s a policy problem that require implementation of laws and provision of infrastructure. Good roads would significantly reduce dust in the community which will significantly lead to decrease in respiratory infections.”

Issah Baba, Assemblyman in Sagnarigu who represents the local community, says the 20,000 people here are being left behind in development of infrastructure and public services.

“It’s quite obvious that we are behind with our environmental issues, ranging from poor sanitation to dusty roads,” says Baba. “We only have one major road constructed in this community. The rest are all untarred roads. With the population here, it’s obvious that the usage far exceeds what this single tarred road can handle. The ultimate solution to this problem would be to make the roads very good, but the resources do not allow that.”

He challenged the government to solve the problem or face backlash from the community. “We expect the leadership of the country to come to the aid of the people, not just for their sake but for the future generation,” says Baba.

In the interim, community leadership and medical staff are urging sensitization campaigns by health authorities and relevant stakeholders to educate residents on how to protect themselves from dust exposure and they’re urging people to wear nose masks as a minimum first step.

This story was a collaboration with The Chronicle. Funding was provided by the Clean Air Fund. The funder had no say in the story’s content.