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Triple Emergencies As Nigeria Battles COVID-19, Lassa Fever And Meningitis

Philip Dzuana, was a medical doctor, working at the Federal Medical Centre, Makurdi in Benue state. He died on Wednesday, April 1, 2020. He contracted the Lassa fever epidemic. He is one of 932 Nigerians who have been diagnosed with the infection and counts among the 178 fatalities within the year.

The world was ill-prepared for COVID-19 but for Nigeria, it is triple trouble. Three deadly infectious diseases are currently posing grave threats to the public – Coronavirus (COVID-19), Lassa fever and Meningitis.

Coronavirus, a global pandemic, gets all the attention in the media, including official panic response. On Dec. 31, 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) first reported a case in Wuhan, China. The virus has now spread to several countries including Nigeria.

The first case of the coronavirus in Nigeria was confirmed on Feb. 27, 2020. A high-level machinery of government comprising the Federal Ministry of Health, a presidential task force on COVID19 and the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) is coordinating national mitigation and response activities to combat the disease.

So far, the Government has tested over 2,000 people, confirmed over 130 cases, and recorded two cases of fatalities while also contact-tracing about 6,000 other possible cases.

In response to the growing public health and safety crisis President, this past Sunday, Muhammadu Buhari addressed the country for the first time since the outbreak. He explained measures taken to curb the spread of COVID-19 including a 14-day lockdown of Lagos, Ogun, and Abuja.

Unlike COVID-19, Lassa fever is not new to Nigeria. The country’s health sector has battled the disease for decades since the first outbreak in Lassa town, Borno State in 1969.

Outbreaks of the severe viral hemorrhagic illness have been reported in other parts of West Africa, including Benin Republic, Ghana, Mali, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. European countries have also treated cases of Lassa fever.

On March 22, the NCDC made a report regarding the spread of Lassa fever. Since the onset of its outbreak in early 2020, Nigeria has recorded 932 confirmed cases and 178 deaths, with new cases reported from 12 states – Edo, Ondo, Ebonyi, Bauchi, Taraba, Plateau, Kogi, Abia, Enugu, FCT, Benue and Gombe.

In 2018, the NCDC reported over 600 confirmed cases and over 170 deaths. In 2019, from Jan. 1 to Oct. 13, 726 cases were confirmed positive and 156 deaths reported in the 23 states.

Nigeria is also battling Meningitis, a disease associated with high morbidity and mortality. According to the NCDC’s website, cases of the disease can occur throughout the year, with epidemics occurring during the dry season.

In 2019, during the flag-off ceremony at the Area 2 Primary Healthcare Centre (PHC), Dr. Faisal Shuaib, the executive director of the National Primary Healthcare Development Agency (NPHCDA), reported the country had 4,516 cases of meningitis and 364 deaths related to the disease. In 2017 and 2018, 14,766 cases were reported with 1,207 deaths.

Mohammed M. Alhaji, an expert with the Solina Centre for International Development and Research (SCIDaR) in Abuja, described Nigeria as one of 26 sub-Saharan countries forming the African meningitis belt.

This holds the highest burden of Meningitis in terms of causes and records. It is in excess of 30,000 cases annually, especially during dry seasons.

Alhaji names the following northern Nigerian states residing in the belt—Sokoto, Kebbi, Zamfara, Katsina, and Jigawa—as more prone to the Cerebrospinal Meningitis (CSM) epidemic. Such cases occur throughout the year, but the NCDC and partners prepare for this epidemic in the dry season.

Regarding Lassa fever, Alhaji says, the hotspots are consistently in Edo, Ondo and Ebonyi states. However, the 2020 outbreak is showing a considerable increase of cases in Bauchi, Gombe, Plateau, Taraba and Kogi.

2020’s outbreak is the largest to date, compared with the 2019 case rate. Alhaji describes navigating the COVID-19 pandemic as an unchartered territory in the landscape of Nigeria’s infectious diseases.

Yet, as the country battles the novel virus, hundreds of its citizen are dying from the other two diseases – Lassa Fever and Meningitis leaving the health care system almost helpless.

In order for the containment of COVID-19, the government and States must have proper communication channels to report cases. The NCDC is leading the coordination of response, however, the bulk of the frontline response lies with the States. Only two states, Lagos and FCT have a decent capacity to respond.

So far, there have been inadequate testing and isolation facilities and although the comment ramped up by six more, it is not enough to fight COVID-19. How then can the government concentrate on tackling the other healthcare needs?

Some local authorities and private donors are racing to address the health care infrastructure deficit and improve critical health services to manage high risk and sick patients.

Presently, Nigeria has 71 hospitals with Intensive Care Units (ICUs) and a total of 350 beds. Findings from the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) indicated Nigeria has 500 ventilators. All these are grossly inadequate for about 200 million people. At this point, the survival of Nigerians depends on drastic steps by stakeholders.

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Murtala Abdullahi

Abdullahi Murtala is a researcher and reporter. His expertise is in conflict reporting, climate and environmental justice, and charting the security trends in Nigeria and the Lake Chad region. He founded the Goro Initiative and contributes to dialogues, publications and think-tanks that report on climate change and human security. He tweets via @murtalaibin

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