A Lassa Fever expert has criticised Nigeria’s response to the deadly viral disease, saying the government has not done enough to check its recurrence.
Nigeria is currently battling an outbreak of Lassa fever, with 195 confirmed cases and 29 deaths in 11 states, between January 1 and 24.
Although the National Agency for Disease Control has activated a National Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) to coordinate the response activities, figures are gradually on the rise as new states in the last few days have been reporting suspected and confirmed cases of the disease.
The disease has become an all year round occurrence in the country, with cases peaking around November to May. This has become a major concern for health experts as there has been no solution to contain the disease.
Lassa fever is an acute viral haemorrhagic fever (VHF) caused by Lassa virus. The natural carrier of the virus is the multimammate rat, but the disease is also spread through human to human transmission.
Oyewale Tomori, a professor of virology, shares with PREMIUM TIMES his take on the disease and why Nigeria seems to be having problems finding a lasting solution to fight the menace.
Oyewale Tomori on Lassa fever outbreak in Nigeria
“On Lassa fever, we have not seen anything yet. For the past 15-20 years or so, Lassa Fever has become the Nigeria’s “Christmas and New Year” disease. Come it must every year, and we celebrate it with escalating annual pain and agony,” he said.
“Unlike the real Christmas and New Year, which the economy has now reduced to a better to be forgotten holiday, Lassa Fever comes annually with increasing fulminating ferocity, coupling fear and unacceptable fatality.
“We thought 2018 was the worst year, then came 2019, nearly one-and -a-half times more suspected cases reported than in 2018. For the first three weeks of this year we have 32 LGAs in 9 States already reporting 398 suspected Lassa Fever cases of which 163 have been confirmed and 24 dead. If what we have seen so far this year is a foretell of what Lassa Fever will do to us this year, then we are in for a terrible time.
“At the beginning of every year, as Lassa Fever rages, we are told not to panic, and that the situation is under control. You remember, how our Police Force always have everything under control. so it is with the Lassa Fever situation.
“The government knows that the dry season is the active period for Lassa fever and with the rainy season the number of Lassa fever tumbles/ Therefore they tell us not to panic, as the rains will soon arrive.
“You know what I think? I agree that panicking does not solve any problem in Nigeria. Those who panicked and decided to peacefully demonstrate their panic were met by the security forces who ensured that the situation was brought under control.
“But, do you know what I think we need to do before we take Lassa fever seriously? With the current laissez-faire attitude of successive Nigerian government to the health of the common man (as distinct from the health and welfare of our leaders), we will need the assistance of Lassa fever virus.
“We must beg the virus to stop discriminating against the poor of Nigeria and pick up courage to also deal with the high and mighty, the important people of Nigeria. I have said it once or twice, and I will say it again… until the cold hands of Lassa Fever reach and take the life of someone in Aso Rock or any the 36 State houses plus one that we have in Nigeria, many more Nigerians will continue to die from the disease.
“Until Lassa fever takes the life of a precious Nigerian, nothing tangible will happen. Until the National Assembly takes a one-minute silence and suspends sessions in memory of one or two honourable members who succumbed to Lassa fever, nothing…I repeat, NOTHING… will happen to control the disease in Nigeria.
“Our leaders know how to protect themselves and will do anything- legal or illegal- to do so! As for the rest of us, they do not care a hoot. My only hope is when Lassa fever touches Nigeria’s top people, they will wake up and see they are not immune from death by Lassa fever.
“Meanwhile, while waiting for Lassa fever to pick up courage and move up higher in the class of people it attacks, the rest of us must realise that our lives are in our hands. We must do something to protect us from Lassa fever.
“Our best bet is prevention, because I have not yet seen any Nigerian government that will do anything of benefit to us, should Lassa virus catch us. Whatever our governments have done in the last fifty years since 1969 when the disease was discovered and named after Lassa town, has been too little and always too late.
“Each year, we allow Lassa fever free rein on the life of the people of Nigeria, and each year we weep and cry – Lassa Fever has come again. Lassa Fever is killing us. Somehow, I think the new Minister of Health will work with the state governors and the respective Commissioners of Health to safe Nigeria from the pain, the agony and the deaths from Lassa Fever.
“I am looking forward to the day – and hopeful that day will come when we, as a nation, will be free as a nation from the annual shame of helplessness over Lassa fever. While waiting for the slow and rusty wheels of the government to (grind) into action, let us do a few things to save us from the pestilence of Lassa.
“We know that the host of Lassa fever is a type of rodent who gives us Lassa fever through direct contact with their body discharges or by contaminating our foodstuff with the discharges. Therefore, we must avoid contact with rodent’s blood, urine, and other droppings.
“Cover your food in SEALED metal containers, not in paper or plastic bags; certainly not in a container that the sharp rodent teeth can nibble through.
”When you are sick, especially with malaria-like symptoms- fever headache, muscle and joint pains etc. see a doctor early, to rule out Lassa fever.
“Avoid close contact (that could lead to exposure to body fluids and discharges) with persons who have symptoms similar to Lassa fever
“Keep your environment clean and free of invading rodents. This will reduce direct and close contact and exposure to rodents and their discharges and body fluids.
“Finally, we must never let our leaders rest, until they provide funds and create an enabling environment for improved disease surveillance, detection, diagnosis, and control, with appropriate response.
“In addition, Nigeria must stop depending on foreign assistance and provide adequate funding to support – and provide sufficient funds for the conduct of research into the drugs for the treatment of Lassa fever, and vaccines for the control of the disease.
“Now that many of our leaders have become tech savvy with social media accounts, let us inundate their twitter accounts and plaster their Facebook accounts with your calls on Lassa fever. Ask for urgent and instant action on their Instagram.”
Mr Tomori is one of the foremost Lassa fever researchers in globally and has made a lot of scholarly contributions on the disease. He started research on the disease since 1981.
Mr Tomori’s research interest focuses on viral infections, including Ebola, Yellow fever, and Lassa fever among others. He is a Fellow of the Academy of Science of Nigeria, a Fellow of the College of Veterinary Surgeons of Nigeria and Fellow of the Royal College of Pathologists of the United Kingdom.
He serves on several advisory bodies including the Board of the BioVaccines Limited in Nigeria, WHO Africa Regional Polio Certification Committee, WHO Eastern Mediterranean Regional Polio Certification Committee, WHO Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research, WHO Polio Research Committee, WHO Group of Experts on Yellow Fever Disease and the International Steering Committee of the International Consortium on Anti-Virals, ICAV, Canada.
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