Epidemic means different things to different people. Most people tend to associate it to the outbreak of a disease, which has had its toll on a large number of persons and led to the loss of lives.
It could also have been a pokerfaced newsreader reeling out casualty figures on radio or television. (Think Cholera outbreak claims 8 in Niger, Cholera claims 10 in Kogi, Expect Flooding, Epidemics in 2011, says NEMA).
A doctor may have told you the constant stooling and dehydration you had meant you were one of hundreds smitten in a cholera epidemic.
But thanks to the media, you were left in no doubt that cholera was sweeping through pockets of Nigeria throughout August, leaving in its wake hundreds dead and thousands hospitalized.
Health professionals--who still look on reporters with some skepticism--admit the media is indispensable in dealing with epidemics, because their role in informing the public is important.
That does not stop journalists skipping the interphase to demand direct access to an expert on the outbreak team to clarify technicalities and dumb down the medical speak.
The media's role goes beyond breaking the news on disasters, says Dr Nasir Sani-Gwarzo, chief consultant epidemiologist at the federal health ministry.
Speaking to dozens of health editors and reporters from print and broadcast last month, Gwarzo outlined roles journalists have commonly taken on in epidemics.
The media can predict potential for an epidemic, raise alarm in case of one, monitor response to one, educate communities and influence policies.
It can also sustain public and government attention on epidemics, draw attention to the plight of countless people infected and affected.
In the case of cholera, which Nigeria and other countries in the meningitis belt routinely deal with, the media is just in the right place to examine how assistance is delivered and assess whether the outbreak is the result of a failure or the outcome of a systemic problem.
But bigger questions trail the brash headlines: to what extent should the media report in its coverage of an outbreak?
Bleeding to lead
The media's obsession with naked facts and figures is at the heart of a debate between it and the medical establishment.
Journalists know too well doctors' reluctance to dish up the figures that make headlines. Doctors, arguing that figures don't make stories, guard sensational statistics that would otherwise stun the public.
Some voices in the media need those figures to goad officials into action. The reasoning is: If it bleeds, it leads.
Health editor Ruby Leo says experience shows only stories of desperate situations get the attention of public officials and prompt action.
The downside of a headline proclaiming thousands dead since outbreak of cholera this year in Nigeria is that the shock value starts to fade.
Epidemics by nature wear themselves out, meaning statistics on the dead are wasted, making no impact on political leaders, says Sani-Gwarzo.
The wonder is whether reporting damages and complications would prompt more response. But the ideal situation is preventing an outbreak, first, or--failing that--stopping it from claiming the highest number of lives.
While meteorologists forecast heavy flooding in parts of the country this year, epidemiologists predicted cholera outbreaks, linking them to flooding well before they occurred.
That was the point at which an outbreak could have been averted. After all, cholera thrives in unsanitary environments with poor sanitation, inadequate drainage, improper disposal of refuse, all environmental conditions that could be corrected.
By September alone, more than 19,000 cases would be recorded and over 600 lives claimed by cholera, according to figures from the health ministry.
Cerebrospinal meningitis is also easy to predict, coming as it does in 10-year intervals.
Nigeria--along Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Cameroon and the Sudan--lies in the CSM belt, an area that still reports more than 15 cases per 100,000 of their population.
The 10-year connection is simple calculation: it takes that long to lose CSM immunity. It takes approximately 10 years for children immunised against it to lose their immunity. The 10 years are sufficient for a critical mass of people to become vulnerable, and then CSM strikes again. This time, 953 cases were reported with 57 deaths.
Polio is a separate case. Nigeria and three other countries--Pakistan, Afghanistan and India--in which polio is endemic have been battling the virus.
Attempts to eradicate it are still on, and endemic countries cannot afford to pull the rest of the world back into the grip of polio after UN member nations agreed to eradicate the virus.
This year, 29 cases have been reported in six states; 14 of them were vaccine-derived polio, a strain likely limited to Nigeria.
In ordinary parlance, the vaccine-derived strain comes from using the polio vaccine wrongly or failing to get full immunity.
Nipped in the bud
The rush toward prevention emphasizes why immunisation should be right and complete. Each vaccination only confers 40% immunity on a child.
Here is how it works. The first jab gives 40%, leaving out 60%. Each successive jab gives 40% of whatever number remains. So five jabs will give percentages like 40, 24, 14.4, 8.64, 5.18 respectively.
A child consistently given four rounds gets around 87% immunity, and needs another shot to push toward full immunity. So health officials stress five rounds to reach a threshold of at least 90% immunity and coverage to deal with polio.
Epidemiologists know that the disease they deal with eventually wear out only when enough people have died, even without intervention. Every epidemic goes through set stages: a first case, which is detected, then confirmed through laboratory tests before response is mounted.
Public health intervention aims to make response faster, stopping every case from becoming a potential fatality. And interventions are hardly possible without the media.