The health authorities could do more to tame the viral disease
The gravity of the current health emergency in the country was driven home on Monday when the Health Minister, Prof. Isaac Adewole, confirmed that the current outbreak of Lassa fever has led to 31fatalities, including four health workers. Also alarming, the viral disease has spread to 15 states with no fewer than 105 infected patients.
What is particularly disturbing is that the relevant authorities are not consistent on adopting simple measures to control the disease after containing the initial outbreak. According to a statement by the University Graduates of Nursing Science Association (UGONSA), nothing was ever done by the authorities, such that hand sanitisers, electricity and even running water "disappear and become essential commodities in our hospitals, leaving our nurses and physicians with the pathetic option of treating patients largely unprotected". No fewer than 40 health workers have died of the disease in Ebonyi State alone in the past 13 years.
Indeed, in describing January as one of the saddest months in the history of the country, following the death of medical doctors in the bid to save Lassa fever patients, the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) President, Dr Mike Ogirima, decried the poor condition under which medical practitioners, especially those in public hospitals, work. "When patients are taken to emergency room, there are no examination gloves and hand sterilisers among other protective gadgets" said Ogrima.
While the nurses also raised several other pertinent issues pertaining to welfare and neglect of the health sector by both the state and federal governments that should be looked into, it is noteworthy that Lassa fever has been a serious challenge for Nigeria's health authorities since it was first diagnosed in Lassa (the village for which it was named) in Borno State in 1969. Despite the fact that there have been efforts in the past to contain the scourge, it is unfortunate that we have been witnessing frequent outbreaks in recent years.
It is unfortunate that despite the fact that it is now a national epidemic, there is little public awareness of how the disease could be prevented. The symptoms, which include fever, sore throat, vomiting, back pain, cough, abdominal pain, restlessness, and general body weakness, usually appear six to 21 days after contact with the virus. But there are recommended preventive measure such as avoiding contact with rats (dead or alive), keeping the house and surroundings clean, clearing all bushes around the house to avoid breeding sites for rats as well as putting refuse into covered dustbins and disposing appropriately. However, because the symptoms of Lassa fever are so varied and non-specific, clinical diagnosis could be difficult, especially early in the course of the disease. For this reason, steps should be taken by the federal government to direct all health facilities in the country to emphasise routine infection prevention and control measures. Healthcare workers should also be advised to always be careful to avoid contact with blood and body fluids in the process of caring for sick persons.
While we believe that with effective coordination, the disease could be contained quickly before it becomes another epidemic with dire implications for the lives of our people, the real challenge is to work towards its total eradication from our country. That is a task for the health authorities at all levels of government.