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Lassa fever deaths: Once again a nation’s shame

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Once again, we as a nation have been caught on the wrong foot as far as our preparations for public health emergencies are concerned. There were reports last week that Lassa fever had killed over 40 people in over a third of the country’s 36 states. Mr. Henry Akpan, the Chief Epidemiologist in the federal Ministry of Health said the deaths occurred in 87 cases confirmed out of 397 that were reported over a six-week period. Two doctors and some nurses who handled some of the cases were among the dead.  
Lassa fever is an acute viral haemorrhagic illness spread through contact with rat excreta. Its symptoms include fever, headache, difficulty in swallowing and it infects vital human organs, often leading to death. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that the fever is endemic in West Africa and that it kills over 5,000 annually. Incidentally, the fever is named after the town of Lassa in Borno state where it was first identified in 1969. The state is caught up in the present epidemic. The other states affected are neigbouring Yobe, Taraba, Adamawa, Plateau, and Nasarawa. Anambra, Ebonyi, Edo, Lagos, Ondo, Rivers and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja, make up the list given by the health ministry.
As if the number of deaths was not alarming already, more shock was to come from Dr. Abdulsalami Nasidi, Project Director, Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (CDC) who warned that another 40 million Nigerians were at the risk of coming down with the deadly fever, that is close to a quarter of the country’s 160 million population. He said the fever spread so quickly and drugs were so expensive that a treatment programme might not keep pace. According to him, N500 million would be required to reduce the infection rate in the next three months.
Given what the CDC project director said, we can infer that prevention rather than cure is the best way to get on top of this public health problem. And this is possible through an “aggressive public enlightenment campaign”; those were his very words. What we cannot fathom, however, is why this campaign was not undertaken well before the present epidemic broke out. For God’s sake, this problem has been with us since 1969 and the WHO had warned that the epidemic was an annual affair. What more did our health authorities need to be better prepared this year? Why can’t we, for once, be proactive?
Instead, when the Minster of State for Health, Dr. Muhammad Pate and his staff met with journalists on February 23 in Abuja, it was to say that “only 12 states” were affected, not the 14 earlier reported. It was also to continue with our fire brigade approach to emergencies. At the interactive, the minister announced a 23-member Lassa fever Rapid Response Committee. Its mandate is to “develop standard operating procedures on infection control in hospitals, mobilizing resources for its prevention and control and coordinating intervention activities”. Concluding, he said: “It’s our resolve to do everything possible to control the Lassa fever epidemic”.
Well,  40 are gone already. Let us hope the “resolve to do everything possible” will save the lives of the other 40 million Nigerians at risk right now.

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