Vanguard (Lagos)

19 November 2012

Nigeria: Searching for a Solution to a Mass Killer

Last week, the Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General Azubuike Ihejirika, disclosed that the Boko Haram sect has killed 3,000 people in the last few years. That is a high figure by all means and the menace needs a prompt solution.

But by the end of this year, it is estimated that 300,000 Nigerians will have been killed, not by Boko Haram, nor through community clashes, road accidents, plane crashes, or war, but by a vicious killer called malaria. That figure is the combined population of five countries: Seychelles, Andorra, Dominica, Liechtenstein and San Marino.

Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa; it is also the most hard-hit by malaria in the entire globe. Often referred to as 'the disease of poverty,' approximately 50 percent of all malaria cases occur in only five of the world's countries.

Nigeria has the unenviable distinction of placing first among all of them - making up 23 percent of all reported cases. Inflicting much pain and suffering, malaria not only destroys lives, but tears apart families and cripples the ability of countries to move forward.

According to Nigeria's National Malaria Control Programme, some 90 million of the country's total population of 169 million are affected by malaria annually. Over 300,000 Nigerians perish as a result of the disease each year, a figure which represents ten percent of the yearly death total in the African continent.

Malaria is a cruel disease which strikes people of all ages, and 30 percent of infant deaths in the country can be attributed to complications stemming from malarial infection.

The disease also contributes to Nigeria's ongoing economic issues, costing the developing country an average N160 billion ($1 billion) a year in medical expenses and lost hours of productivity.

Passed on to humans through the bite of bacteria-carrying female mosquitoes, the disease generally brings with it a set of symptoms, including chills, hay fever and profuse sweating. These uncomfortable, and often painful symptoms can last anywhere from a few weeks to several months.

Potentially fatal complications such as jaundice, renal insufficiency, hepatic insufficiency and decreased cognitive ability can all ensue. Many victims slip into unconsciousness, never to wake.

As yet, no efficacious vaccine has been developed to combat malaria. In affected regions of the world, the only defence people have is the near-impossible task of avoiding mosquito bites. For this specific reason, malaria relief efforts to date have centred on mosquito net donation programmes.

Sleeping under insecticide-treated nets has proven to be somewhat effective, preventing five to six out of every 1,000 children they protect from being infected, according to independent non-profit organisation, the Cochrane Collaboration. Aerosols and coils are also known to be effective in combating the malaria scourge; they knock down as well as repel mosquitoes, in the process helping to reduce the risk of mosquito bites.

Locally developed repellants have also been ascertained to be effective in the fight against these noxious insects in most rural settlements. As good as these measures are, they have harmful and side effects to human health. There are serious risks associated with inhaling aerosols; some immediate side effects include sneezing, coughing, diarrhea, slurred speech, double vision and drowsiness.

With our limited means of defence against the disease, malaria is once again on the rise. Recent research by Dr. Vincent Corbel and a team of French scientists, published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, shows that malaria-carrying mosquitoes are developing a tolerance to the various insecticides employed against them. Corbel's research also notes a shift in the insects' feeding habits, circumventing the use of mosquito nets by concentrating their attacks outdoors.

The challenge is to eradicate mosquitoes completely. But since that is a long shot, the onus is on all stakeholders to find a more effective way of preventing mosquitoes from biting people, especially young children and pregnant women.

If mosquitoes are prevented from biting, the chances of malarial attack will be reduced, if not eradicated among those who are never bitten by mosquitoes. Organisations as well as government agencies should take this as a challenge.

In recent times, the Global Fund has saved more than 7.7 million lives by funding treatment and preventative care programmes across the planet. Leading humanitarian agencies such as the United States Agency for International Development, USAID, Roll-Back Malaria, RBM and DFID have over the years been committed to fighting malaria.

These bodies work closely with national governments to build their capacity to prevent and treat the disease. They have also gone into initiatives that have pushed back the malaria scourge such as investment in the discovery and development of new anti-malarial drugs and vaccines.

In the light of the present realities, it is expected that iconic innovative companies will invest more in research and development in order to come up with safe and affordable products that will ensure that mosquitoes, which are the vector of the malaria parasites, are entirely stamped out.

Mr. AZUKA ONWUKA, a public affairs commentator, wrote from Lagos.

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