“Much of the time I stop using the syringe [to take my diabetes medicine], because it starts to hurt…because it’s no longer sharp.”
His words left me with tears flowing down my cheeks. It already hurts to be living with diabetes. But when you are living with diabetes and with the gnawing truth that you do not have the money or access to replace your syringe needles when they get dull, it dulls your will and ability to fight the disease.
This is also a story of not just hundreds but millions of diabetes patients in Rwanda and other low-income countries, where people live stressed and, in worst-case scenarios, waiting empty-handed to die because they have no access to essential medicines they require each day to survive. This is the story of just one of hundreds of Kigali residents that our Young Professionals Chronic Disease Network (YP-CDN) Kigali (Rwanda) team served on November 14th for World Diabetes Day, when we provided free screening for diabetes, eye complications, and hypertension.
In 2015, there were ~190,000 people (ages 20-79) in Rwanda living with diabetes: 3% of the population. Knowing that almost half of Rwandan diabetics are undiagnosed, that percentage may be a gross underestimation. Living with diabetes is involved and expensive. Every day, patients need 4 to 6 injections of insulin. It requires regularly pricking your fingers, no fewer than 3 times a day, to monitor blood glucose levels and to stay alert for your body’s need for any other medications. In low- and middle-income countries, there is desperate need to advance advocacy for the access to essential medicines at more affordable prices. Life-saving medicines should not have to bankrupt national health budgets or impoverish families.
As a pharmacy student, I dreamt of initiatives that would provide better standards of living for the people in my community impacted by diabetes and other non-communicable diseases (NCDs), but I did not know how I could start to channel them into actionable changes. Then, I learned about YP-CDN.
Connecting to knowledge, news, and discussions from all over the world via YP-CDN local and global NCD advocates and social network supporters, I came to understand how I myself can become a part of the NCD movement and contribute to something greater. YP-CDN, as a global social network of over 6,000 members and a platform for changemakers on the ground, unleashed the power of unity combined with the zeal of young people to change our world.
In September 2016, I participated in the the NextGen Leaders Workshop in Nairobi, Kenya hosted by YP-CDN and its partners to prepare 47 healthcare professionals, students, and patients from 8 different countries to become NCD advocates. I engaged in a dynamic learning environment, where I was moved by fellow NextGen leaders’ concerns and priorities on NCDs from the East African region and had ample opportunities to practice the skills essential for advocacy and policy discussion. In particular, I really enjoyed a session on how to deliver an elevator pitch, where I was given exactly 60 seconds to convey my policy suggestions. The practice compelled me to be to-the-point and a persuasive advocate. Coming out of the 3-day workshop, I had the skills to push for better health policies and programs. I left Nairobi empowered and confident, ready to impact my community with the knowledge gained.
The greatest thing about the workshop was that it didn’t just teach me concepts, but equipped me with a network of allies across borders and a plan of actions to combat NCDs, like diabetes, back home. I became actively involved in local YP-CDN endeavors, becoming a leader of the Kigali chapter in Rwanda. Through a partnership with the Rwanda Diabetes Association, our YP-CDN Chapter aims to address the current gaps in access to diabetes care in the country. So far, we have led a social media campaign to raise awareness of diabetes in Rwanda and hosted the aforementioned World Diabetes Day event.
During the event, we organized an on-site clinic, educational booths, and counseling sessions at the Rwanda Biomedical Centre, in partnership with Rwanda Diabetes Association and Agarwal’s Eye Hospital, where we reached over 300 Kigali city residents with free screening and check-ups for cardiovascular conditions, kidney failures, and eye complications related to diabetes. There is a real need for these screenings in a culture where regular check-ups at the doctor are not commonplace: one in two adults with diabetes is not diagnosed with the condition, making them susceptible to diabetic complications that could lead to substantial disability or premature death. We also spoke with individuals and families about diabetes prevention, and how to recognize risk factors, stressing the importance of regular medical check-ups for timely diagnosis and prevention of NCDs.
In the wake of the collective efforts of patients, healthcare workers, and young professionals that made the World Diabetes Event possible, one thing stuck with me. Although we might live in a world of challenges, we are strong enough to challenge them together. For patients, there’s nothing more satisfying than having their stories heard and learning how they can be better involved in managing their health and helping others in the same position cope better too. For me as a public servant and NCD advocate, there’s nothing more satisfying than waking up knowing I am today contributing to my community’s development. I appreciate a platform YP-CDN that mobilizes, convenes, and influences changemakers to bring together talents and do something about the problems we’re all faced with. YP-CDN, also as a member of the greater ImpactHub network in Boston and Kigali, has the backings of seasoned social entrepreneurs, activists, and engineers who discuss and practice positive collaborations every single day.
This is a brief story of my (on-going) journey with YP-CDN in the fight to realize the right to health. This is also your story. You can help to become and raise changemakers. You can help to move political actors, industries, and health experts to turn the patterns around and secure affordable access to essential medicines. With your help, we can continue to change lives across our communities.
Francis Nuwagaba has four years of experience in the nonprofit sector, and currently in his final year of study pursuing Bachelor’s of Science in Pharmacy from the University of Rwanda. He is volunteering as a community development promoter with Young Professionals Chronic Disease Network in Rwanda as the chapter leader. Spearheading the advocacy for the inclusion of Non Communicable Diseases (NCDs) into the priority concerns of Rwanda’s health sector, training of next generation of NCD advocates, and free education services to his community for the prevention and control of NCDs, he has helped improve the health of Rwandans living with or at high risk for cancer. Previously, Francis volunteered with Rwanda Children’s Cancer Relief, a local community-based organization to advance health equity and promote childhood health awareness. During this period, Francis served as the outreach program director on childhood cancers in Rwanda. Francis is passionate about global health with emphasis on NCD treatment.
YP-CDN is running a #MultiplyChange fundraising campaign to prepare the next generation of local advocates in health, policy, and advocacy across East Africa. They are looking for both donations and new ambassadors.