Lassa Fever: time to declare a national health emergency

The best analogy with which to describe Nigeria’s response to the current Lassa Fever outbreak is that of a man who upon seeing a glowing ember on his thatch roof, walks into his bedroom for a nap. Since this disease is very similar, and as deadly as the Ebola virus, we are obviously playing with fire.
As at last count, the highly infectious disease has killed over 70 people and it is fast spreading across the country. 17 of Nigeria’s 36 states have recorded cases of Lassa Fever infection. Ebola, its untreatable cousin, didn’t wreck half as much havoc as Lassa fever has already done.
The thing that I cannot get a handle on is that while the country’s response toward Ebola invoked respect across the world, we are unbelievable failing in our handling of the Lassa Fever outbreak. It is shocking that the government has not declared a national emergency and channelled as much resources as needed to roll back the spread of the disease before it becomes an epidemic.
I can still recall the urgency that helped us to fight Ebola to a standstill. Public enlightenment on Lassa fever has been muffled at best. During the Ebola outbreak, 10 minutes won’t go by without one hearing some news related to the disease. If you were not listening to a radio jingle saying something about prevention and where to seek help, you are looking at a billboard doing just that.
Corporate Nigerian was not left out. Companies bought hand sanitisers and funded enlightenment campaigns on how to prevent the spread of the disease. With the death rate nearing 100, no major Nigerian company is actively involved in the fight against Lassa Fever. Shame.
Minister of Health, Isaac Adewole, last week announced that the disease could kill more than 1,000 people before it is finally contained. I think we should put all our resources into saving as much lives as possible.
Looking back at our collective lethargic response towards the spread of Lassa fever, it is almost impossible to believe that we were the same people that collectively stood our ground against Ebola.
But let’s ask some critical questions. Why are we having problems with Lassa Fever, which is treatable and less infectious than Ebola, when we held the world in awe with our effective handling of Ebola.
Two issues come to mind.
The first one is the state of health facilities in other parts of Nigeria outside Lagos. The outbreak and spread of Lassa Fever have confirmed that Lagos is way ahead of many states in the country in terms of its preparedness to handle health emergencies like Ebola and Lassa Fever.
The speed at which the state reacted to the stop the spread of Ebola after it was confirmed that Patrick Sawyer, the American-Liberian, who brought the disease to the country was infected, was amazing. Everything was put in place to reach everyone who had contacts with him. People were quarantined and placed under observation. A lot of resources was spent in making sure the disease did not go out of hand.
Unfortunately, in many states where Lassa fever has wrecked the most havoc, the state of the healthcare facility is just terribly poor. Take the case in Edo, where a confirmed Lassa Fever patient left a teaching hospital in the middle of an epidemic and travelled all the way to Ebonyi, without anyone noticing!
Even, the Minister of health was so frustrated by the shabby preparedness of states he had to chastise them in the media.
Even as Lagos announced the first Lassa Fever death in the state, it has shown that it has the most comprehensive response to the disease so far. On Friday, the Minister of announced the creation of an Emergency Operations Centre( EOC) to coordinate its response to the outbreak. It has released a comprehensive list of people under observation in different parts of the states. We are yet to see this kind of response from even states that have had cases of outbreaks for weeks.
There is also another troubling reason everyone knows but are scared to talk about. By its nature, Ebola was no respecter of statuses. The rich are as prone to it as the poor. The rich cannot live in a vacuum. They need the poor to do their bidding. So a sweaty contact with your housekeeper and you carrying it.
Prof. Isaac Adewole, Minister of Health
Prof. Isaac Adewole, Minister of Health
But Lassa Fever is discriminatory. It is a disease spread by rats which flourish in the squalor associated with poverty. It is mostly a poor man’s disease. They rich can afford expensive fumigation to keep rats and other vermin away for as long as they want.
Poor people living in slums and farmers in villages cannot afford this luxury. They have to resort to buying staple like garri in the open market where they are not properly stored.
One has proof of this, of course, but could the government’s uninspiring response to tackling Lassa Fever be because, like other infectious diseases like Cholera, it is largely targets the poor?
The way out of this Lassa Fever outbreak is for the Federal Government to declare a state of emergency, make resources available for treatment (Some states do not even have the most basic of drugs needed for the treatment) and get those that managed the successful fight against Ebola to take charge to the effort to curtail Lassa fever.