Ondo battles Lassa fever as self-medication, delayed treatment worsen cases
PETER DADA writes on the worsening cases of Lassa fever in Ondo State, which experts attribute to self-medication and delayed treatments among other factors
Many reports show that Lassa fever is a viral disease that has neither a cure nor a vaccine to immunise people against it, as it does for COVID-19 and other deadly diseases.
However, relevant stakeholders in the health sector have been trying to wipe it out.
According to the World Health Organisation, Lassa fever is an acute viral hemorrhagic illness caused by the Lassa virus, a member of the arenavirus family.
The UN agency further explained that humans usually become infected with the Lassa virus through exposure to food or household items contaminated with the urine or faeces of infected Mastomys rats. It added that the disease is endemic in the rodent population in parts of West African countries such as Benin, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Sierra Leone, Togo, and Nigeria.
In Nigeria, the continued reports of the federal government’s health agency, the National Centre for Disease Control, have put Ondo and Edo States on the frontlines of the states with the highest cases of lashing fever.
The latest situation report of the NCDC, as obtained from thecable.ng, indicated that 77 new cases of Lassa fever and six deaths were recorded in the country from January 9 to January 15 of this year in nine states.
According to the report, the affected states are Ondo, Edo, Ebonyi, Bauchi, Benue, Kogi, Imo, Oyo, and Nasarawa. It further stated that, in total, there had been 105 cases and seven deaths recorded in the New Year 2023.
However, the latest situation report did not disclose the states where deaths were recorded.
Specifically, the continuous leading status of Ondo State in the Lassa fever world has been giving stakeholders much concern and raising some questions. Why is Ondo maintaining its unfortunate and scandalous top position among states with higher cases? Is it the Ondo government that needs to be more proactive in the fight against the viral disease? Is it the need for more awareness and sensitisation among the people? Is it the people of the state that are being deviant and obstinate to the instructions of the health practitioners on their hygiene?
A Lassa fever survivor and a community health practitioner, who gave his name simply as Dr Joel, blamed the government for the continued prevalence of the viral disease in the state. He said the government needed to raise awareness and sensitise the people, particularly in the local communities. He said the government only seems to do something about the disease during the dry season, but they relax as soon as the season ends.
He said, “I will be factual without destroying anybody’s integrity; I am a medical practitioner and understand the whole issue. The government needs to play its part better. If not for this dry season, you won’t hear anything from the government; they will keep quiet and won’t use the money they are supposed to use. Suppose they boosted awareness religiously throughout the year. In that case, I tell you, the disease would have been eradicated in Ondo State and other affected states.
“So many people have died, and we don’t even know the cause of their death. As I speak with you, many people are unaware of the Lassa fever disease because the awareness campaign only occurs during the dry season. It is difficult to be cautious when people are unaware of the disease. Some will be sick and taking self-medication, thinking it is malaria fever, and by the time they get to the hospital, it may be too late. I am not saying the government is not doing anything about it. Still, their effort is insufficient and should not always be seasonal. They should step up.”
On the contrary, a senior medical officer in the Ondo State Ministry of Health, who did not mention her name because she had no permission to speak to the media, admitted that the number of cases in Ondo was high but that the government was not being lax about it. She stated that many states in the country had high cases, but they were concealing the information in order to avoid being tagged.
According to her, “The way these cases are on the increase, you will ask yourself, is it possible for cases to be too many in a state and the neighbouring state be saying that they don’t have a case? Does a rat respect borders? I’m saying this so that as a journalist, when you write this story, you must also give credit to people who put their lives on the line to start these cases, to carry them, and to run the test, night and day. I think Ondo is being sincere about the matter. Shifting the blame onto the people, the medical practitioner said the lifestyle of people, particularly those at the grassroots, must be changed in terms of personal hygiene.”
She added, “We require the help of everybody, and the people themselves must be up and doing. Those people who are running away from the hospital should stop doing that; they should access care. Some of our attitudes toward food processing, personal hygiene, and waste management need to change. Of course, I admit that the government must be put on its toes. The government should also be up and running in terms of waste management and urban planning.
“The ‘Japa’ issue is also there; many health workers now have left; they have traveled; we also need to shore up our health care services; these are the realities on the ground. So, if we are to apportion blame, I believe both the government and the people have to be blamed on this matter.”
Mr Michael Olonite, a Chief Community Liaison Officer on Lassa Feedback Research in Akure North Local Government who was appointed by the Federal Medical Center, Owo, said there was a need for the government to pump more money to fight and eradicate the disease completely.
Olonite, a survivor of the disease, however, noted that efforts had been ongoing at the community level to make people know more about the deadly disease, and also, as a liaison officer, they had been informing the FMC about the cases in the local government.
He said, “We have gone through the churches and mosques; we have been creating more awareness for people to be vigilant; there’s nothing more to do. We have been talking to the community members to ensure that they observe the environmental sanitation of their community; they should keep everywhere clean. The community is trying its best, but it’s not enough.
“The major thing that the government needs to do to do the funding properly is that they are not doing enough of it. They are not concerned because their families are not involved. If the road is bad and if any member of the governor’s family or that of the minister doesn’t die there, they won’t do it.
“So, if the people in power can continue to listen to the truth, all these things are very minor. If we see any case of tuberculosis or leprosy, we will call on the necessary authorities to deal with it; all these things are what we are doing for humanitarian service. The foreign communities are sending money to Nigeria to fight and control all these diseases so that we won’t infect them.”
In a reaction, the Ondo State Commissioner for Health, Dr Banji Ajaka disagreed with the notion that the government was not being proactive about the issue of the Lassa fever. He said many steps were being taken to tame the scourge. Ajaka, who acknowledged the virus’s prevalence in the state, noted that it was lower than last year.
He said, “This is the period of Lassa fever; it usually occurs during the dry season of the year, from November to March or April. But the highest point is between January and February, and Ondo State is an epic centre of it and Edo State. So as of today, we have a high number of positive cases and some deaths too. The mortality ratio of those who tested positive and the number of deaths are low compared to last year. This period last year was about 19 per cent to 20 per cent and above, but this year it is about. So, the number of cases that we have now is low, and what we are doing now is testing. If you have a high number of cases, that means you are testing all over the place, because if we don’t test, there’s no way you will know; you will just assume that you don’t have it, and it is killing people around you.
“Testing is important, and that’s what we are doing right now; we are testing everywhere. Then, we established an emergency operation centre for Lassa fever, activated it, and it’s meeting on a daily basis with WHO and other agencies. That partnership is helping us with case management and prevention, and we are engaging different communities. Our people are all over the 18 local governments; we engage the communities and everybody, sensitising them to what Lassa fever looks like. The highest level of suspicion is critical because by the time the person develops complications, it may be difficult to reverse due to haemorrhagic shock.I think it will be unfair to anyone who says that we are not working or doing well. We are doing far better than last year and than any other state in the country.”