Women pounding cassava flour on the ground
A little over one year after Ebola outbreak claimed several lives across the country and stretched the Nigerian health care system to its limits, another epidemic, Lassa fever, is unleashing similar horror on the nation, writes Eric Dumo and Alexander Okere
There is fear in the land. Tension is rising while panic is seizing communities. This is not because there is a civil war spreading fast across every nook and cranny or the dreaded terrorist group, Boko Haram, had overrun the entire country – no. Households are grappling in trepidation because of a new and ruthless killer in town – Lassa fever.
Unlike a civil war and invasion by a terrorist group, Lassa fever gives no sign of its approach. Akin to a thief in the night, the disease storms communities, wreaks havoc and imprints devastating consequences on the landscape.
Since August 2015 when the virus surfaced in the country and January 2016 when it became a full blown crisis, at least 17 states across the federation have been visited by this ruthless ‘blood sucker’ that strangles life out of its victims in a matter of days, if not hours after contact. So far, there have been around 212 suspected cases across 62 local government areas while more than 63 deaths have been recorded in the process.
Minister of Health, Prof. Isaac Adewole, while addressing delegates during an emergency National Council on Health meeting on Lassa fever outbreak in Abuja earlier on Tuesday, said, “We are worried and we should be worried. This is why this meeting is important. This battle is not for us alone. It is a nationwide exercise.”
Indeed, the latest crisis to stare Nigeria in the face is not for the Federal Government alone but for every citizen. Though, the level of awareness is relatively low compared to when Ebola hit the country in 2014, individuals and households who are aware now apply extra caution in handling hygiene matters.
In Edo State for example, findings by Saturday PUNCH revealed that residents especially in rural communities, have been warned not to spread food items like cassava flour popularly known as garri on the floor or by roadsides as it could be a major avenue for the attraction of rats which spread the Lassa virus.
“Many of our people in the villages dry their garri in the sun by placing it on mats or the tarred road and it usually attracts rats. These rats eat and sometimes defecate on it, that is why we advise that people should stop eating garri for now,” Mr. Ebojele Ordia, a resident of Etsako West, said.
A woman spreads out ‘garri’ on the road
A woman spreads out ‘garri’ on the road
Experts say the low level of awareness among rural residents is also a major challenge in the treatment of infected persons. According to findings by Saturday PUNCH, most victims of the virus report late for diagnosis and treatment at the Irrua Specialist Hospital, Edo.
Chief Medical Director of the hospital, Dr. Sylvanus Okogbenin, revealed that many of those affected by the virus would have survived if they had turned up for treatment early.
“We have quite some deaths, although majority of them occur in the Accident and Emergency unit. In other words, they just come and before you can do a diagnosis, the patient dies. So, they are coming so late to the hospital. That is why we are saying that there is need for more sensitisation so that patients can begin to present themselves early.
“The truth is that, even if you are infected with Lassa fever and come early to the hospital, it can be treated, particularly as we have plenty of Ribavirin injection specifically needed to treat patients.
“We also have the renal dialysis unit that is specifically for patients who have Lassa fever because one of the causes of death is that Lassa fever virus affects the kidneys and the kidneys shut down. We have dialysis machines that help us manage them,” Okogbenin said.
At least 60 persons have been placed under surveillance by the health teams across the state, according to the Institute for Lassa Fever Research and Control. While the demand for rodenticide, popularly known as “rat killer,” has increased across Edo, the state’s Ministry of Health has warned against the consumption of raw or uncooked garri, which many consume by soaking in water.
An official in the Edo State Health Educator, Department of Primary Health Care, Mrs. Helen Ehigie, stressed the need for hygienic storage of food. She said, “The containers for storing garri and rice should be well covered so that nothing can penetrate. If you forget to cover your food, discard when you come back; you do not know what happened when you were away because these rats have travelled far now.”
Edo is not the only affected state taking spirited measures to end the scourge, others are feeling the heat, too, and equally sensitizing residents to shun all sorts of unhygienic food storage and living patterns.
First discovered in 1969 in a small town called Lassa in Borno State, Lassa fever is an acute viral hemorrhagic fever caused by the Lassa virus.
According to medical science, its symptoms include general weakness, headache, respiratory distress, bleeding in the gums, repeated vomiting, facial swelling, pain in the chest, back and abdomen as well as shock. The disease could also lead to hearing loss and death due to multi-organ failure when left untreated.
Experts say the virus is mostly spread through the eating of food contaminated with rat feaces and urine while direct contact with the blood, urine, feaces or other bodily secretions of an infected person can also cause the sickness.
Though, more popularised than on previous occasions, this is not the first time Nigeria would be greeted by the deadly Lassa fever. An outbreak earlier in 2012 caused similar havoc, affecting around 15 states and claiming at least 45 lives.
Reports say there are around 300,000 to 500,000 cases of the disease around the world each year leading to about 5,000 deaths. Many of these deaths are believed to have occurred in West Africa with most cases not reported or properly documented.
But renowned virologist, Oyewole Tomori, believes that with adequate awareness of the causes of the disease, reducing the scourge won’t be too difficult even if complete elimination may not be readily possible at this time.
“What we need is a lot of awareness, especially among people in the rural areas, to store their foods properly, to protect them from contaminated virus,” he said.
While the Ebola outbreak of 2014 pushed the Nigerian health care system to its limits, the eruption of Lassa fever in most parts of the country today is seen as an even bigger litmus test on health care management in Africa’s most populous nation. For families who have lost loved ones, they would wish this was a long night that could be punctuated by the break of dawn.