Blindness: How health researchers failed Abuja community

Abuja City Gate
Abuja City Gate, Abuja

In July 2018, the preparedness of Nigeria’s health researchers to respond to emerging challenges was tested when a strange eye disease blinded 15 persons, including children, in Ruga community located in the heart of Abuja.

Perhaps, the involvement of many children should have triggered an enquiry into the immediate and remote causes of the infections, and a decisive medical response, including impairment remediation.

Instead, both primary and tertiary health responders to the outbreak resorted to nonclinical conclusions and administered help on a national basis, a situation that has kept the issue a mystery and continued to astound locals.

Notwithstanding the proximity of the affected community to medical research laboratories, universities, hospitals and research institutes, as well as the ministry of health; several months after an NGO reported the debilitating disease, its nature and causes have remained in the realm of speculation.

As the authorities fail to provide any verifiable diagnosis and the issue continues to gain public attention, the fear and confusion that enveloped Ruga community in Wuye District of Abuja Municipal Area Council (AMAC) over the outbreak remain, even though health officials appear to have rested the matter.

A visit to the community revealed the eagerness of residents to know what resulted in the most scandalous disease outbreak in their community. A resident, Salamatu Zubaru, appealed to relevant health authorities to carry out a forensic investigation and bring the outbreak under control.

Apparently, the disease came as a shock to residents who had hitherto, not experienced any similar occurrence in their entire lives. One very disturbing trend was the speed at which people became blind as minor itches on the eyes were enough to trigger an impairment.

Residents of the community first discovered the outbreak of the disease when two children of the same parents became blind within an interval of one week, which forced community leaders in the area to report the matter to a primary healthcare centre in their domains for diagnosis and treatment.

Some of the speculations were those of a health worker with the Primary Healthcare centres in one of the communities, who simply identified herself as Naomi. Naomi said the outbreak occurred because of excessive intake of fatty foods by residents of the area.

According to her, tests were carried out on a number of patients and the results showed that they indulged in excessive intake of groundnut oil, while others tested to high cholesterol in the bloodstream. “All these can cause blindness, especially among children. Although we have put measures in place to prevent further spread of the disease; we are as well calling on other relevant stakeholders for assistance.”

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However, a doctor with the Ministry of Health, Ibrahim Kana, said an investigation had been carried out and about 300 persons in the community were treated of different eye problems, while many of the children were only suffering from conjunctivitis of the eye also called “Apollo.”

Another worrisome drift was the environment of the community which Mr Kana said contributed to the spread of the disease as it does not have potable water and toilet facilities. The disease is spreading across two closely-linked communities, which are largely living in squalid conditions with poor drainage systems and dirty environment littered with waste materials.

Also, the case of a two-year-old boy in Ruga community, Suleiman Buhari, who was born with good sight but became blind after his eyes were swollen, was attributed to measles infection.

From the submissions above, the disease is attributed to at least three causes, high cholesterol, measles and conjunctivitis. But apparently, while the circumstances adduced by the officials are capable of causing isolated cases of blindness, they are not enough to trigger an epidemic of such proportion. There is the need for a thorough investigation to forestall a repeat of the outbreak or even further spread of the disease to other communities.

As dire as the situation has become, it provides an opportunity for visual health experts in the country to test their might by ensuring that they get to the roots and forestall what could spiral into an emergency within the shortest time. If the rest of the country sits back and watch over 20 per cent of the children in that community go blind, it would be adding to the over 25 million population of disabled people in the country with attendant difficulties in providing infrastructure, facilities and care for them.

So far, despite the array of potentials from private practice, none has volunteered services to this community and others. Or perhaps, not to public knowledge.

While a lot of health officials from the FCT and World Health Organisation (WHO) have visited the affected community, as well as the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Muhammad Bello, it is now imperative to unearth what has been hidden from plain sight and save Nigerians living in the community from becoming visually handicapped.

A concerted effort is required from all stakeholders to ensure that victims of the epidemic, especially children, are given necessary assistance to acquire special education in order to live a normal life as adults.

Mr Eno is with COO, Ikang Relief Services Network.

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