History of Medicine
Filariasis in British Guiana
1963 / 16:31
Filariasis Research and Control Unit (British Guiana), in cooperation with the British Guiana — U.S.A. Technical Assistance Development Organization, and the United States Agency for International Development
Modernizing the tropics, making a new nation with public health
Michael Sappol, PhD (National Library of Medicine)
Filariasis, a parasitic disease typically found in tropical areas, is caused by microscopic thread-like nematodes (roundworms; also known as filariae). Spread from person to person by mosquito bite, the worms can cause elephantiasis, a disfiguring and often crippling edema with thickening of the skin and underlying tissues. But different species of filarial worms tend to affect different parts of the body—arms, vulva, breasts, torso and scrotum—along with a variety of dermatological conditions, abdominal pain, arthritis, and “river blindness,” one of the world’s leading causes of blindness.
Filariasis in British Guiana was part of a broad campaign to prevent and treat the disease. It begins by showing Georgetown, the capital of British Guiana, and the colony’s principal industries, economy, and infrastructure, and then focuses on people afflicted with the disease and the mosquitoes and worms that cause it. From there the film goes on to show measures that can prevent mosquitoes from breeding and biting, and how drugs can be used to treat victims of the disease. One particular difficulty of diagnosis is that the parasite hides deep in a person’s tissues during the day: blood samples have to be taken at night (“the nocturnal blood smear”) by survey teams that go house-to-house collecting blood samples.
Filariasis in British Guiana was released in 1963, a time when the United States and Soviet Union were competing for the allegiance of what was then termed “the Third World”. Located on the northern coast of South America, British Guiana, like most of the colonies ruled by European powers, was heading toward independence (which came in 1966 when “British Guiana” became “Guyana”). When the film was made, various factions were vying to influence the course of decolonization and to lead the new nation, and the U.S. government and British colonial administration were undertaking a number of measures aimed at modernization and nation-building. The anti-filariasis campaign was a part of such efforts. At the time, Guianese politics was particularly contentious, with Marxist and pro-Western parties vigorously competing, largely along ethnic lines: East Indians, descended largely from laborers brought over in the 19th century to build the railroads during the rubber boom; Afro-Guianese, descended from slaves brought from Africa to work on sugar and rice plantations; Amerindians; “mixed” and other smaller groups.
The film contains no overt reference to the Cold War, decolonization, or ethnic and political strife, but is in many ways a response to the political situation. It makes sure to represent the main demographic groups, showing the effects of filariasis on all, and implicitly asks viewers to come together in support of efforts to improve the health of the colony, for the good of the soon-to-be nation. On camera, people of East Indian, Afro-Guyanese, mixed and European ancestry (mostly Americans) are shown working harmoniously on the anti-filariasis effort. Unlike many health propaganda films of the period, the filmmakers try to avoid any hint of racial prejudice or condescension: the narrator praises the inhabitants of the colony (“the industrious Guianese tend their farms well”; “fishing . . . is productive and helps to vary the diet”), and empathically discusses the dire economic, social and psychological consequences of filariasis on ordinary Guianese. And yet there are hints of condescension, in some places empathy fails: most Guianese spoke Creole or, if educated, British-accented English, but the narration is in American English; in one spot, the film refers to the Guianese as “these people.”
The film ends, strangely, with a shot of a woman playing tennis, a sport that was not popular with, or accessible to, most Guianese. That image, perhaps an afterthought, awkwardly signified the modernity that nationhood was thought to be ushering in—a modernity much more powerfully symbolized by the film itself, and the anti-filariasis campaign it promoted.
Michael Sappol is a historian in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine, editor of Hidden Treasure and the author of A Traffic of Dead Bodies.