The authorities could do more to contain many cheap deaths
Data from the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) reveal that at least 32 people died of Lassa fever in the first three weeks of 2022. These deaths arose from 170 confirmed cases within the period. Although the NCDC says the case fatality rate (CFR) of 18.8% is lower than the CFR for the same period in 2021 (25.0%), it is a shame that Nigerians are dying from this preventable disease, and in such large number. Named after a Nigerian village where it was first discovered in 1969, Lassa virus is transmitted to man by infected multi-mammate rats and humans become infected from direct contact with the urine and faeces of the rat carrying the virus.
Even though cholera had killed more people than COVID-19 in Nigeria, according to NCDC, it was treated as less deadly and wasn’t a national emergency. The demographics of the affected, of course, influenced the direction and measures of intervention devised by the government. Unlike cholera cases, which have been more rampant in rural and poor parts of the country, COVID-19 has wrecked higher social classes, including policymakers. The lingering outbreak of Lassa fever risks being treated as a less priority by Nigerian policymakers due to the social class and location of the victims.
Fortunately, with effective coordination, the disease can be contained quickly but the real challenge is to work towards its total eradication from Nigeria. We hope the authorities will take both preventive and long-term measures this time around so that we do not continue to lose our citizens to the virus that has become another national emblem of shame.
The federal government should deploy the National Orientation Agency (NOA) for a public awareness campaign on the issue. Experts have advised that people should ensure their food (cooked or uncooked) is properly covered while regular handwashing should be adhered to. The bush around the home should also be cleared regularly while windows and doors of the house should be closed especially when it is nighttime. The public should also be adequately enlightened on the dangers posed by rats in their homes.
The absence of primary health care system for preventable diseases such as yellow fever, Lassa fever, polio, cholera, and measles has contributed to cheap deaths in our country. Yet, the first anchor in any strategy to improve the wellbeing of the people is to provide them with an unimpeded access to functional primary health care system. The basic objective of all developments is to get the people to enjoy healthy and creative lives. It is no use sermonising when the people lack access to basic primary health care.
According to WHO, no human should die from preventable diseases, yet what kills most Nigerians are diseases that are easily preventable. To address this challenge, there is an urgent need for public enlightenment on healthy living. On yellow fever, for instance, the interruption of regular mass vaccination campaigns in Nigeria has contributed mainly to its resurgence. While it may no longer be news that tobacco kills and harms the health of millions of Nigerians, even when statistics may not be readily available, many of our young people are introduced to smoking every day, indicating a failure of the system put in place to enforce the National Tobacco Control Act 2015.
More surveillance, more awareness, more resources and better coordination will be necessary to reduce deaths from these preventable diseases. Covid-19 has stretched public attention and resources. It is important that we do not allow necessary focus on the pandemic to distract attention from the more localised epidemics, especially Lassa fever.