Skip to main content

Notes from the Field - Madagascar and Plague


RiDNet member Caroline Ward blogs about some of the challenges she faces as she heads off to conduct PhD fieldwork in Madagascar

Blog post by Caroline Ward

"Just a couple of weeks before I was due to leave for my three month fieldwork stint in Madagascar I was greeted by an unwelcome surprise: an outbreak of Plague... in the same region as my fieldwork site. Almost everyone I spoke to had the same reaction: “Plague?! You mean that disease that we learn about in history – the Black Death? It still exists?!”

Madagascar is one of the few countries in the world where Plague is still very much a real and present danger. Most years there is an outbreak during the rainy season, usually killing around a hundred people, although in 2014 an outbreak made global headlines with 263 cases and 71 deaths. At the point when I heard about it the current outbreak had, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), so far affected fourteen people, of which ten were dead. Madagascar rarely makes the global news, so it was tricky to get further up to date information on whether the outbreak was continuing or not. A plea for information through Twitter, Facebook and e-mail didn’t get me much further either, but my in-country contacts were hopeful that this outbreak had been contained.


After many long discussions with risk assessment, health and safety, supervisors, my GP (who contacted the UK Health Protection Agency and WHO for advice), a concerned neighbour of my parents (who also happens to be a doctor), and with myself (conclusion: PhD fieldwork isn’t really worth getting Plague for!); plus a re-write of my risk assessment, I continued with preparations for fieldwork. The logical thing seemed to be to go to Madagascar as planned, albeit now in possession of antibiotics to treat Plague, and find out more information once I arrived.

As it happened no one seemed to be particularly concerned about Plague in Madagascar. The overwhelming consensus when I arrived was that yes there had been a few people who’d caught it, but it hadn’t spread any further and this was just a normal part of the rainy season. The challenges faced in fieldwork by us as researchers are often unexpected, but most importantly are often just a part of normal everyday life to the people we are working with. That does not minimise the importance of taking every precaution possible as I did, but it provides a useful reminder that whilst certain developments can appear alarming, dangerous even, the perspective gained in context can be both different and more informed than might be expected."

If you want to hear more experiences about challenges in organising and carrying out fieldwork, then come along to the RiDNet conference: "Conducting Fieldwork in Development Contexts: Expectations, Encounters and Entanglements" Monday 30th November 2015.