MSF Calls For Urgent Response To Nigeria’s Escalating Diphtheria Outbreak

Over three-quarters of the 4,000 suspected cases reported in the country in August 2023 were from Kano state, the international medical NGO said. 

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is concerned about the record number of diphtheria cases in Nigeria.

The international humanitarian organisation, also known as Doctors Without Borders, said the outbreak in 1989 was initially the worst, with 5,039 infections. But this year, 6,000 cases have been recorded. Low vaccine coverage has aggravated the problem. 

“We’re currently seeing more than 700 people with suspected diphtheria and admitting more than 280 patients on a weekly basis in Kano state’s two diphtheria treatment centres,” said Dr Hashim Juma Omar, MSF emergency project medical doctor.

“Women and children aged under five are the most vulnerable groups and are the people most affected right now in Kano state. And they really need help.”

Earlier this year, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), in a public advisory, alerted health workers to the disease after it was recorded in Lagos, Osun, Kano, and Yobe states. 

Head of the Centre, Ifedayo Adetifa, advised health workers to “maintain a high index of suspicion”. 

In its July update, the NCDC said a total of 4,160 suspected cases were reported from 27 states across 139 local government areas. One hundred and thirty-seven (137) deaths were recorded among all confirmed cases. It added that 1,257 (81.9 per cent) of the 1,534 confirmed cases were not fully vaccinated against diphtheria.

The bacteria Corynebacterium diphtheriae is the source of the infectious disease. It releases a toxin that makes a person’s throat thick with gray tissue and impairs their ability to breathe and swallow. 

Diphtheria can be contracted by coming in contact with an object that has germs on it or inhaling airborne droplets that contain bacteria (distributed by coughing, sneezing, and spitting). An infected individual may spread the illness through touch or contact with open sores. Diphtheria can occur more than once.

MSF said its teams are tackling the outbreak in the states of Kano, Borno, and Bauchi. But because of a global shortage of the life-saving diphtheria antitoxin brought on by declining production capacity, responding to the outbreak has proven difficult.

“While we provided 2,000 doses of diphtheria antitoxin last month in Kano, securing doses of the antitoxin has been one of the biggest challenges in this crisis,” said Dr Omar. “We have placed an urgent additional order of 5,000 doses to cover the needs in our projects, but still, it is not enough.”

The medical non-profit said there is a need for funding because Kano alone needs millions of the vaccine. Its teams have seen 6,707 people suspected to have diphtheria in the state. 

MSF said it expanded the Gwange III PHC pediatric hospital to a 20-bed diphtheria treatment facility in Maiduguri, Borno state, last January. One hundred and ten (11o) people have been treated so far at the facility. 

The aid group said it is watching the situation in Jama’are in Bauchi state, where it has already treated 21 instances of diphtheria infections during its routine medical activities in Ganjuwa. It has prepared to launch diphtheria-specific initiatives in this area based on the needs. 

Recently, the most significant outbreak of the disease was in the rural parts of Borno in northeastern Nigeria, where between February and November 2011, 98 cases were confirmed

MSF noted that it is working in other countries like Guinea and Niger Republic to tackle similar emergencies. 

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Mahdi Garba

Mahdi Garba covers development, security, conflict, climate & disinformation at HumAngle. He heads the Humanitarian Desk at HumAngle. He tweets regularly @MahdiGarba.

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