Written by Emmanuel Ogbeche

Tackling the Lassa fever challenge

Two weeks ago, Nigerians woke up to the news of a possible outbreak of the dreaded Lassa fever in some parts of the country, with the latest scourge reports say to have claimed over 63 lives in 17 states and the federal capital territory.

The scourge seem to be spreading fast, as 212 suspected cases of the disease have been reported in 64 local governments areas in the affected states of Bauchi, Niger, Taraba, Kano, Rivers, Oyo, Ondo, Edo, Plateau and Gombe. Others states where cases of the virus were reported includes, Nasarawa, Lagos, Delta, Ekiti, Ebonyi, Zamfara, Kogi, as well as the FCT.

In Port Harcourt alone, the virus has claimed three persons, while more than 200 others are currently under observation. Only last week, the Plateau state government confirmed the death of 2 more lives, bringing the number of deaths to the disease to three in the state. Similarly in Taraba state, three people have so far died since the disease broke out this year, while another two people were killed in by the virus in Ondo state.

As scary as these statistics may seem, governments’ response to the virus has not been too encouraging, with a lot of blame trading and denials at the risk of having a national disaster.

Only last week, Minister of Health, Prof. Isaac Adewole, described the current outbreak as a national embarrassment, blaming some states of conspiring to hide the occurrence of the virus from the public. The minister also blamed the spread of the disease on ignorance and lack of awareness.

The National Association of Resident Doctors also accused the federal government of foot dragging. The association had condemned the emergency response arrangement set up by the government to tackle the outbreak, saying an epidemic of such magnitude does not require ad hoc arrangements or committees; rather, there should be an existing strategy to cushion the effect in any emergency or epidemic situation.

Already the federal government has held an Emergency National Council on Health, where modalities to contain the virus were reached. The council announced plans to set up 6 Lassa fever diagnostic centers in the six most affected states, this is in addition to the 6 existing Lassa fever treatment centers in Irrua, Edo state, the University of Maiduguri Teaching Hospital, Borno state, the Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital Kano, Lagos University Teaching Hospital, University College Hospital Ibadan and the National Center for Disease Control, Asokoro, Abuja.

Though we must commend the federal government for its response so far, its level of commitment to an outbreak that has claimed so many lives in barely two weeks may not necessarily be as it is expected. President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration for instance, was commended for its approach at handling the Ebola virus in the country. The success recorded in the fight against Ebola was largely due to the prompt response given to it, as well as the level of public awareness provided about the disease. This may however not be the said of the present response against Lassa fever.

Since its discovery in Lassa, Borno state, in 1969, there has been between 100,000 and 300, 000 cases of Lassa fever or Lassa hemorrhagic fever in West Africa, with 5,000 deaths.‎ The danger of the Lassa virus lies in the fact that there are no effective treatments against the virus, as mortality rate is estimated at between 15-20 percent.

While it is easier to pass the blame on the federal government, the states and local governments must also come up with their own mechanism to tackle such outbreaks. Nigeria should not always wait for a disaster before rushing to contain it. With the diverse exploits in science and technology, Nigeria can no longer afford to embark on fire brigade approach to such issues.

Government can no longer afford to play politics with epidemics, by wanting to be seen speaking tough or being sensitive to the plight of the people. The worth of every government is not in what it does in the face of disaster, but what it does to prevent one.

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