Lassa Fever: time to declare a national health emergency

The best analogy with which to describe Nigeria’s response to the
current Lassa Fever outbreak is that of a man who upon seeing a
glowing ember on his thatch roof, walks into his bedroom for a nap.
Since this disease is very similar, and as deadly as the Ebola virus, we
are obviously playing with fire.



As at last count, the highly infectious disease has killed over 70
people and it is fast spreading across the country. 17 of Nigeria’s 36
states have recorded cases of Lassa Fever infection. Ebola, its
untreatable cousin, didn’t wreck half as much havoc as Lassa fever has
already done.

The thing that I cannot get a handle on is that while the country’s
response toward Ebola invoked respect across the world, we are
unbelievable failing in our handling of the Lassa Fever outbreak. It is
shocking that the government has not declared a national emergency and
channelled as much resources as needed to roll back the spread of the
disease before it becomes an epidemic.

I can still recall the urgency that helped us to fight Ebola to a
standstill. Public enlightenment on Lassa fever has been muffled at
best. During the Ebola outbreak, 10 minutes won’t go by without one
hearing some news related to the disease. If you were not listening to a
radio jingle saying something about prevention and where to seek help,
you are looking at a billboard doing just that.

Corporate Nigerian was not left out. Companies bought hand sanitisers
and funded enlightenment campaigns on how to prevent the spread of the
disease. With the death rate nearing 100, no major Nigerian company is
actively involved in the fight against Lassa Fever. Shame.

Minister of Health, Isaac Adewole, last week announced that the
disease could kill more than 1,000 people before it is finally
contained. I think we should put all our resources into saving as much
lives as possible.

Looking back at our collective lethargic response towards the spread
of Lassa fever, it is almost impossible to believe that we were the same
people that collectively stood our ground against Ebola.

But let’s ask some critical questions. Why are we having problems
with Lassa Fever, which is treatable and less infectious than Ebola,
when we held the world in awe with our effective handling of Ebola.

Two issues come to mind.


The first one is the state of health facilities in other parts of
Nigeria outside Lagos. The outbreak and spread of Lassa Fever have
confirmed that Lagos is way ahead of many states in the country in terms
of its preparedness to handle health emergencies like Ebola and Lassa

The speed at which the state reacted to the stop the spread of Ebola
after it was confirmed that Patrick Sawyer, the American-Liberian, who
brought the disease to the country was infected, was amazing. Everything
was put in place to reach everyone who had contacts with him. People
were quarantined and placed under observation. A lot of resources was
spent in making sure the disease did not go out of hand.

Unfortunately, in many states where Lassa fever has wrecked the most
havoc, the state of the healthcare facility is just terribly poor. Take
the case in Edo, where a confirmed Lassa Fever patient left a teaching
hospital in the middle of an epidemic and travelled all the way to
Ebonyi, without anyone noticing!

Even, the Minister of health was so frustrated by the shabby preparedness of states he had to chastise them in the media.

Even as Lagos announced the first Lassa Fever death in the state, it
has shown that it has the most comprehensive response to the disease so
far. On Friday, the Minister of announced the creation of an Emergency
Operations Centre( EOC) to coordinate its response to the outbreak. It
has released a comprehensive list of people under observation in
different parts of the states. We are yet to see this kind of response
from even states that have had cases of outbreaks for weeks.

There is also another troubling reason everyone knows but are scared
to talk about. By its nature, Ebola was no respecter of statuses. The
rich are as prone to it as the poor. The rich cannot live in a vacuum.
They need the poor to do their bidding. So a sweaty contact with your
housekeeper and you carrying it.

Prof. Isaac Adewole, Minister of Health

Prof. Isaac Adewole, Minister of Health

But Lassa Fever is discriminatory. It is a disease spread by rats
which flourish in the squalor associated with poverty. It is mostly a
poor man’s disease. They rich can afford expensive fumigation to keep
rats and other vermin away for as long as they want.

Poor people living in slums and farmers in villages cannot afford
this luxury. They have to resort to buying staple like garri in the open
market where they are not properly stored.

One has proof of this, of course, but could the government’s
uninspiring response to tackling Lassa Fever be because, like other
infectious diseases like Cholera, it is largely targets the poor?

The way out of this Lassa Fever outbreak is for the Federal
Government to declare a state of emergency, make resources available for
treatment (Some states do not even have the most basic of drugs needed
for the treatment) and get those that managed the successful fight
against Ebola to take charge to the effort to curtail Lassa fever.


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