Source: The Observer (Kampala)
"She says she is 55, just a few years older than my mother," Judith says. She narrates, "One time, after she had told the doctor she is 55, my mother warned her, telling her that it is important to tell the doctor the right age. She [grandmother] told her to leave her alone," Judith says, adding that after this conversation, her mother let the old woman be.
But she shouldn't have let it go. One's age is important in disease diagnosis, determining appropriate dosages of medicine and determining the treatment a doctor gives to a patient. For instance, a 15-year-old who tells a doctor that she is 18 may get information meant for an adult.
She may be given information on available contraceptive methods (other than abstinence); information Dr Vincent Karuhanga says is not supposed to be given to underage girls. A girl who embarks on sexual encounters earlier than her contemporaries is more at risk of catching cervical cancer, sexually- transmitted diseases and early pregnancies.
Nankya, 38, almost died during childbirth at Mulago hospital, after she told the midwives she was 28. While women of 18 to 34 years are considered naturally fit for the rigours of childbirth, their counterparts of 35 years and above may also be fit for motherhood, but are paid special attention in hospitals because older bodies come with their own issues.
Yet there was Nankya, writhing and groaning in pain for hours on the floor of Mulago hospital's labour suite on the fifth floor, with 'other young mothers her age' spending a short while and walking out with their babies. When it was clear she was making no headway, a midwife assisted her in pulling the baby out, but a day later she developed severe abdominal pains and a nurse on duty discovered she still had blood clots that her system had not expelled.
Earlier on, her mother who had been reading through her file realized that in the space left for age, Nankya had filled in 28! No wonder the midwives expected her system to still be working like clockwork!
Dr Miriam Mutabazi, an obstetrician/gynaecologist, says it is important for expectant mothers or women who visit the gynaecologist to disclose their real age because "every age has its challenges. For the very young, those below 18, the risks are different. They are also different for those over 40 or over 50".
Karuhanga says it is "very very important to tell the doctor one's right age". He explains that age is a determinant in making a proper diagnosis.
"Certain disease conditions are more common in certain age ranges," he says. Perhaps some of us have heard that prostate cancer is more common in men above 65 (Dr Fred Okuku of the Uganda Cancer Institute attests to this.) Or that uterine fibroids are more likely to occur in girls of reproductive age, more so those above the age of 20 or 30.
Diana (not this author) experienced her first painful menstrual period a few months back. She called her doctor who on hearing how painful the cramps had been inquired about Diana's age. "You are 25?" he asked and Diana, wondering what her age had to do with it said that no, she was 26.
The doctor then went on to say that her cramps could have been caused by stress, an infection or fibroids - one of the symptoms of fibroids is excruciatingly painful menstrual cramps. She was asked to do a scan to rule out fibroids. She is yet to determine the cause of the painful menstruation but had she lied about her age to the doctor, they might not have looked at the matter of uterine fibroids.
One's age plays a role in determining dosages of medicine given. This is especially true for children. It is also true for the elderly. For some medicines, Karuhanga says, the elderly are given lower dosages than their younger counterparts. This is the case with - men, take note - Viagra.
"A man who looks young and lies about his age to the doctor and is given Viagra in dosages higher than is required will have problems," Karuhanga says. Higher doses of Viagra are known to have side effects like headache, stomach upsets and blurred vision.