Ernest Azike, a photographer returned home from a fruitless expedition at work and had resigned himself to feasting on an African delicacy, garri and groundnut, for dinner.
Deftly stirring the mixture with the hands of one accustomed to depending on this make-shift meal for survival, he is blind to the shadow of death lurking at his door. As he gulps his first swallow, he seals his fate.
An unwelcomed guest, a virus-laden rat had urinated in his uncovered sack of garri and rendered it poisonous. Unsure about the cause of the funny symptoms of fever and skin rash he was experiencing, he took the advice of a neighbourhood chemist and sought for malaria treatment.
Five days later, he was declared dead.
In similar fashion, over 40 people across the country in the last seven weeks have been reported dead from the outbreak of lassa fever while over 397 people have been hospitalized. This was disclosed in a statement by the Minister of Health, Prof. Onyebuchi Chukwu.
The Chief Epidemiologist of the Ministry of Health, Henry Akpan confirmed this saying, “We have 40 deaths, including two doctors and six nurses, from lassa fever which broke out in 12 states in the past six weeks.”
Explaining the rapid rate at which this deadly disease is spreading across the country, Dr Shola Ajayi of Diamond Crest Hospital states, “Lassa fever is a disease that occurs often in the dry season because dust particles from dead rats which carry this virus are more mobile making it easy for people to inhale it.”
He further said that people may become infected through person-to-person contact with virus in the blood, tissue, secretions, or excretions of an individual infected with the lassa virus, eating food contaminated with rat excretions as well as using contaminated needles or other medical equipment.
The above was what came into play in Ebonyi State, where a 28-year-old female corps member who completed her three weeks orientation in Rivers State, travelled home to visit her family in Afikpo and Abakiliki, capital of Ebonyi State.
She contracted the fever on January 1 and died two days later.
Another case of clinical infection arose in 2005. A female nurse working at the Ebonyi State University Teaching Hospital, EBSUTH, Abakaliki, died nine days after she had contact with an infected patient.
One of the nurses at the hospital who was pregnant, slept in the same room with her infected colleague for four days. She also died on the ninth day of her admission after a spontaneous abortion.
Coming on the heels of the outbreak, the Nigerian Medical Association in a press statement said the epidemic could have been prevented if the Federal Government had heeded a call by the Senate to act when there was an outbreak of lassa fever in 2010.
It also said the problem could have been averted if the federal, state and local governments had worked together to prevent the spread of the disease.
In what many have described as a knee-jerk effort, the Minister of State for Health, Dr Muhammad Ali Pate inaugurated the lassa Fever Rapid, Response committee aimed at preventing and controlling the further outbreak of the disease. The committee is chaired by Professor Sunday Aremu Omilabu of Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH).
The Minister, stated that the committee was set up to control further spread of the disease: “Government would continue to support the treatment of all reported Lassa fever cases with prompt provision of drugs and personal protective equipment. This year (2012), 500,000 vials of the Ribavirin drugs were procured and distributed to the affected states.
“It is our resolve to do everything possible not only to control Lassa fever epidemic but to put in place mechanism for its effective prevention. It is in the light of this that National lassa Fever Rapid Response Committee is being inaugurated,” Pate hinted.
Inspite of government’s re-assureance, there are indications that only two laboratories in the country have the capacity to screen blood for lassa fever and these are the Irrua Specialist Hospital in Irrua, Edo State where more than 22 people have been declared dead and the Central Medical Laboratory at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH).
As reported cases increase around the country, the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) say they have begun organising sensitisation programmes geared towards raising the alarm over the outbreak.
Addressing newsmen in his office at the state Secretariat complex, Port Harcourt, the health commissioner announced that the fever had already claimed its first casualty in the state, while six other cases have been confirmed.
Alhaji Musa Ilallah, the Acting Zonal Coordinator, NEMA, North West, has said that efforts are being made by the agency to curtail the likelihood of the disease spreading to other parts of the country: “So far, according to reports gathered by NEMA, not less than 12 states have recorded cases of lassa fever and this prompted our quest to sensitise the populace.”
Disclosing that it would require N500 million to stop lassa fever in its tracks, Abdulsalami Nasidi, Project Director, Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, CDC, states, “Unfortunately, it has spread to several states and the population of these states is very high. We need more of the lassa fever drugs – and they are very expensive – and an aggressive public enlightenment campaign.”
In Bauchi State, the commissioner for health, Dr Sani Malami, expressed that the state had set up a vigilance team to curb further spread of the disease, “The ministry of health has implemented increased vigilance and surveillance through an early warning system in collaboration with international partners because of the devastating effects of the disease. It is imperative for health workers and members of the public to take all the necessary precautions against its transmission.”
According to the Minister of health, Professor Onyebuchi Chukwu, the states that have witnessed the outbreak of the disease and become endemic are Ebonyi, Taraba, Edo, Gombe, Nassarawa, Plateau Ondo, Rivers, Anambra, Delta, Lagos, Yobe as well as Edo, Nassarawa and Plateau which have been identified as the states from which the virus was transmitted to other parts of the country.
About 300,000-500,000 cases occur annually, with approximately 5,000 deaths.
Giving precautionary advice, the Lagos State Commissioner for Health, Dr Jide Idris, stressed the need for people to “cover their food and water properly, cook all their food thoroughly, as well as block all rat hideouts and holes through which rats can enter their homes.”
Idris also emphasized the need for proper grain storage techniques, maintaining adequate sanitation as well as proper disposal of refuse.
Lassa fever is an acute viral illness that was discovered in Nigeria. The viral hemorrhagic illness was discovered in 1969 after two missionary nurses were killed by the disease.
The cause of the illness was found to be Lassa virus, named after lassa, a village located in Bornu State in at Yedseram river valley toward the south of Lake Chad where the first cases originated.
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