29 January 2016

Nigeria: 'Lassa Fever Scare Has Changed How We Do Business'

As Lassa fever rampages, markets become source for concern. A look at Utako Modern Market reveal traders harbor fears caused by filth they are sure is responsible for the rats around. Some take care to cover food items now, but is this enough?

Armah Ya'u, a trader in Utako Modern Market, had never heard about Lassa fever or the lives it has claimed until this week when he came across a flyer sensitizing the traders about the disease. Perplexed, he asked questions and the explanation he got reminded him of the constant activity of rats in his grocery store.

"Here in our shop, when we leave in the evening rats eat our goods," he reveals, adding that even when they cover the goods with polythene bags they return the next morning to find tomatoes and the like in halves or quarters. When they notice this, they quickly throw away those that have been eaten and replace with fresh ones. But "sometimes we just put them in water and wash them," he says.

After Ya'u learnt about the virus, he suddenly realized that it was a major discussion and now everywhere he goes everyone is talking about "this new disease." But he believes that "God who brought this disease would protect us." So he made a decision to use every means possible to protect his customers by sanitizing his immediate environment, after all he is a Muslim and knows he should not be careless about what could negatively affect others."

A few rows behind Ya'u's place Is the store of a thirtyish woman who sells provisions and food products such as garri and beans. She appeared taken aback by the mention of Lassa fever and immediately recalls a radio programme where she heard the presenter say that people should avoid buying garri because it is more prone to being infected by rats. "I try as much as I can to cover my goods in the market," she informs, but admits that rats run around the market and inside their shops.

Miss Blessing Okechukwu is a trader more aware of the threat posed by Lassa fever virus. Compared to many of her colleagues, she learned early about the disease and has remained alert. "I wonder how it came to Nigeria," she laments, adding that if Nigerians could handle the Ebola virus, then the same could be the case with Lassa fever. She complained about the filth which attracts many rats in the marketplace, particularly Utako Modern Market. "And we are selling what attracts them," Miss Okechukwu says. "I sell gari, stock fish and other foodstuff. When I accumulate trash, I go far away from here to dump them." As far as she is concerned, protecting food items from rodents should be a top priority in the market even though there has not been an obvious effort by the market's union to sensitize traders about the dangers posed by the virus. "People know about it because it has been aired on television and radio," she explains.

Despite the rise of Lassa fever across many states in the country, life must go on and Nigerians must eat. This is how Chinonsa Okore feels as he buys a few items in Utako Modern Market. He explains that because the disease is rat related, he and his entire household take more time in cleaning the house being that rats are domestic parasites.

"The most important thing for me is to make sure the house is clean so that rats will be unable to come in, because when they find an environment conducive for them, they come in and reproduce," Okore insists, adding that this is the reason why people are advised not to soak and drink garri because then the virus will have full power to operate.

He further expounds that "when it is boiled for eba the virus is killed, but when you drink it the temperature is very low and so you can contact the disease. Prevention is better than cure."

Despite this Okore adds that one can never be too sure when buying things from the market and so "it is only God that can help us," he says. "Who knows what happens in the night when the traders shut their shops in the market. I am sure when you come to this market in the night you will see how rats celebrate."

A virologist and co-founder of the Institute of Human Virology, Nigeria (IHVN) Dr Alash'le G. Abimiku has said sustained heat can help kill the Lassa fever virus. He said if people are afraid to drink soaked gari because of Lassa fever, then they have to worry about every other food.

According to him, the common rat that transmits Lassa fever virus lives around houses, and has the habit of contaminating food that is left open with its faeces and urine, which has the virus.

"Therefore all forms of food contaminated with its urine and eaten without any processing with heat that kills the virus will transmit the virus, so it is not wise to single out garri. This could happen to any food that is left uncovered," he said.

Recently, the Medical and Health Workers Union of Nigeria, Lagos Branch, commenced a campaign to stop the consumption of soaked gari, and suggested using it for eba instead. The union said the heat it takes to make eba was a safeguard.

Abimiki, agreed that boiling water for a period of time would destroy the virus.

"For just hot water to destroy the virus, it must reach at least 56 0C for a period of time-30 minutes is recommended. Boiling water would kill the virus, period."

He said another source of infection is through contamination from infected foods or utensils and pans, and this involves touching infected sources and then infecting oneself by putting contaminated hands into ones mouth or any abrasions or cuts on the skin.

"General hygiene is critical for controlling viral infection. It is unwise to single out one act and one food item and think that you are safe from being infected by Lassa virus," he warned.


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