Addressing neglected tropical diseases – Thisday

There is urgent need for mass enlightenment on tropical infections

Health Minister, Osagie Ehanire, recently raised the alarm that 122 million Nigerians were at risk of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), a diverse group of viral, parasitic and bacterial diseases that afflicts mainly the poor. Nobody seems to have paid much attention to him. Yet the implication is that at least one in every two Nigerians risked contracting NTDs. With little over 500 million people on the continent said to be at risk of the public health concern, Nigeria’s 25 per cent of the indices is a huge global burden, especially as the number of those at risk increases every year in the country.

Neglected tropical diseases are overlooked infectious ailments grouped together due to their often chronic, disfiguring, and stigmatising impact and their close association with poverty and geographic overlap. At least 15 of the World Health Organisation (WHO) designated 20 NTDs are present in Nigeria, including Trachoma, (granular conjunctivitis), Onchocerciasis, (river blindness), Lymphatic Filariasis, (elephantiasis), Schistosomiasis (parasitic worms), Leprosy, Snakebites yaws, Rabies and Buruli ulcer. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), these diseases have significantly caused illnesses and deaths chiefly among the vulnerable or disadvantaged Nigerians. It has also impacted negatively on families and the society.

Reports have shown that 20 per cent of those affected or at risk in Nigeria are of pre-school age while 28 per cent of them are between ages five to 14 years. The remaining 52 per cent are adults from 15 years and above. On specifics, 119.8 million Nigerians are at risk of filariasis, a disease that affects the lymph nodes and vessels, and 51.4 million by river blindness. These diseases and more, Ehinare has argued, devastate not only the affected persons but also leave their families miserable.

It is good that the minister of health has acknowledged the prominence of NTDs and the devastation they are causing in Nigeria. We must, however, go beyond noting these otherwise overlooked public health issues. The nation must now focus on addressing them head on just as it is presently doing with HIV, Malaria, Tuberculosis, Cholera as well as COVID-19. For a start, all levels of government should include NTDs sensitisation in their programmes, as ignorance has been fingered as the major factor fuelling the rise of the scourge.

Most Nigerians do not know how to prevent themselves from NTDs or how to manage them properly. Stakeholders must make this a priority, especially in rural and hard-to-reach areas where this is concentrated. Just like Malaria and Tuberculosis, governments (both local, state, and federal) should provide significant budgetary allocations for tackling NTDs. The gains made in addressing other known health issues could come to nothing if NTDs are wreaking havocs. It is time stakeholders knew that nations are no longer rated by how deep their financial reserves are, or how great bridges and tall buildings are. They are rated by their human capital development which includes the health of their people.

Although Ehinare said the country has been making efforts to contain the scourge of NTDs, he has not highlighted those measures even when the picture he painted of the challenge was of crisis proportion. Therefore, what Nigerians expect is not only a lamentation about the current situation but rather what the minister intends to do to change the unfortunate narrative.

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