31 January 2016

Nigeria: HIV-Mad Cow-Ebola-Lassa-Zika

When I was growing up in Sokoto in the early 1970s, a dishevelled local musician called Shu'aibu Tsamaye used to go from house to house, with a kalangu drum slung on his shoulder, playing his popular tunes. Shu'aibu's best known tunes were about drug addiction which in those days mostly involved kwaya [amphetamines], kapso [capsules], roka [rocket] and aisin [ICD]. He also had a popular song about the Udoji salary awards.

One day in 1974 Shu'aibu arrived at our house and sang a new song. It was titled Ana wata ga wata ta samu, roughly translated as 'we are still grappling with one problem and here comes another.' Before he began singing Shu'aibu provided a short explanation. He said, "People's private parts are being stolen in this country. While we are still on that, some people have been caught slaughtering donkeys [and selling the meat to unsuspecting customers as beef]. That is the reason for this song."

I have a similar reason for today's article. In 1970 this country was turned upside down by a great cholera epidemic that claimed thousands of lives. People collapsed and died within minutes from vomiting and diarrhoea. In late 1982 our national peace was again shattered by an epidemic of the cattle disease rinderpest. Whole cattle herds were being infected with the viral disease, so President Shehu Shagari together with state governments scrambled to do a mass inoculation of cattle. Land Rovers with inoculation teams were to be seen roaming the countryside. Stories told at the time claimed that it was buffaloes in the Yankari Game Reserve that spread rinderpest to cattle. It was also said then that the old Native Authorities in Northern Nigeria were always well prepared for rinderpest outbreaks because in those pre-oil days, the cattle tax jangali was one of their most important revenue sources. However, General Yakubu Gowon abolished jangali in his 1974 budget speech. After that local authorities no longer cared much about cattle diseases, cattle routes or grazing reserves, leading to the problems of today. While the rinderpest scare lasted everyone in Nigeria was afraid of eating beef.

In late 1983, only a year after the rinderpest outbreak, our newspapers exploded with stories about the outbreak of a genital disease called herpes. There were allegations that it started at university female hostels; local folks suggestively nicknamed it 'Dan Zaria.' Before the herpes scare, the most feared sexually transmitted disease around here was gonorrhoea. Students called it 'GC' after its causative germ, gonococcus or 'VD' for venereal disease. In those days a lot of students got gonorrhoea, which caused great pain during urination. Luckily the hospitals had a very effective treatment for it in the form of ampicillin injection, which made it easy to urinate within an hour.

In 1987 we suddenly heard about the outbreak in Europe of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy [BSE], popularly called mad cow. The disease was not found here but we were all very apprehensive because we have large cattle herds. Worst affected was Britain. Many countries of continental Europe banned imports of British beef. There was an incident in the 1990s when German Chancellor Helmut Kohl visited London. Prime Minister John Major, who insisted that mad cow had been contained, served beef at a dinner he hosted in Kohl's honour. Kohl jovially ate the beef, which caused uproar in Germany. The Economist magazine then pointed out in an editorial that mad cow disease has a ten years' incubation period and since Kohl was nearly 70, he could afford to take risks. At the height of the saga a Nigerian newspaper carried the screaming headline that some Nigerian businessmen had rounded up carcasses of British cows destroyed due to mad cow and were shipping them to Nigeria.

The father of all epidemics, HIV/AIDS was sprung on the human race in the mid-1980s. Human Immunodeficiency Virus was first identified in a French lab in 1981 but the scare reached a crescendo in the mid-1980s. At first HIV/AIDS was thought to affect only homosexuals and heroin addicts that shared needles. Its association with sexual transmission soon created a huge social stigma around HIV. Government was urging everyone to go for a test but what was the point, since doctors said HIV had no cure? A nasty international argument also ensued when Western medical authorities claimed that HIV originated in Africa from the Simian Immunodeficiency Virus [SIV] found in apes. African nationalists, aided by the world's Communists, countered that HIV emanated from Western biochemical warfare labs from where it accidentally escaped. At the height of the scare my friends and I sat down and rued our bad luck, that HIV arrived during our time and it poured sand into our gari.

Thirteen years ago, just as we were getting a handle on HIV, came the first reports of bird flu outbreak. Where rinderpest and mad cow had scared us from eating beef, bird flu scared everyone from eating chicken. Chicken by the hundreds were culled in any Nigerian farm where bird flu was found. Government was supposed to pay compensation to the farmers but many of them came up empty handed. Soon afterwards we heard about the outbreak of SARS [Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome] in Asia. It was gruesome to see pictures on television of thousands of chicken being culled in Hong Kong and Thailand.

Two years ago we had the Ebola pandemic. There had been small scale Ebola outbreaks in Uganda and Congo over the years, which were easily contained but the great pandemic that erupted in Guinea in December 2013 soon created the biggest international health scare since HIV. At a point it looked as if Ebola would wipe out the populations of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. In Nigeria however Ebola created a national hero in Dr. Adadevoh who tried to confine the man who brought Ebola to Nigeria. "That crazy man Sawyer," President Goodluck Jonathan called him. Ebola generated the biggest national madness in Nigeria when millions of people woke at night and took a salt bath on the say-so of a social media chat. It also earned us an unusual accolade. On the day that WHO certified Nigeria to be Ebola free, CNN said Ebola was contained here because "Nigeria has a very good health care system." When I heard that I said to myself, "Then why is everybody going to Egypt, India and Dubai for treatment?"

Just when we were celebrating the end of Ebola, Lassa fever returned with vengeance. It was first identified in 1969 when the virus killed some missionaries in Lassa town in Borno State, not too far away from Sambisa Forest. You can imagine our angst over Lassa fever because the virus is carried around by rats. Which house is there in Nigeria that has no rats? Unlike Ebola, our health authorities did a poor job of containing Lassa fever. They allowed it to escape from a few states and it is now almost nationwide.

Before we could get a grip on Lassa fever, we heard about the outbreak in Latin America of the Zika virus, which causes babies to be born with small heads [microcephaly]. Zika is ferried around by mosquito, which is a thousand times more common around here than rats. What do you want us to do? After watching a BBC television report on Zika virus I found myself singing Shu'aibu Tsamaye's old song, "Ana wata ga wata ta samu..."

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