A discourse on rats and 2018 Hajj exercise last week made headlines in many online and mainstream media. Some news platforms drew a bleak picture of the doom about to befall Nigerian Muslim pilgrims due to rats attack whilst another group towed with caution querying whether the rodents may prevent same pilgrims from embarking on the holy journey. Thankfully enough, Nigeria’s minister of health quickly dispelled all fears with a single declaration backed by data that the rat attack has been ‘technically defeated’ and that they are at the stage of ‘operation final punch’ before declaring the outbreak successfully over.
Indeed with some papers running gloomy headers such as “Hajj 2018: Saudi Arabia Moves to Stop Nigerian Pilgrims “ and hurriedly copied by many online editions including on Reuben Abatti’s page, perhaps some intending pilgrims, especially those who have already paid might have begun experiencing cardiac freezes. This was evidenced by the frenzy of calls some NAHCON staff kept receiving from individuals seeking clarification. However, two principal officers swiftly laid the confusion to rest just when some Nigerians might have seen a cover to launch their political subterfuge. One of these principal officers is the chairman and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of NAHCON, Barrister Abdullahi Mukhtar Muhammad and the other is Nigeria’s minister of health, Prof. Isaac Folorunso Adewole.
In a stakeholders’ meeting held on Tuesday, 24th of April, 2018 in the Office of Secretary to the Government of the Federation, NAHCON’s CEO expounded that traceable to media panic over Lassa fever outbreak late last year, the Saudi ministry of health resolved to take precautionary measures towards preventing persons, items or Lassa fever vectors from gaining entrance into the Kingdom in order not to endanger the lives of world pilgrims.
Barr Mukhtar who concurred to Saudi’s fear, affirmed that NAHCON would do anything humanly possible to ensure that no one with a suspected case of Lassa fever is allowed to make the pilgrimage to Makkah and that all agencies responsible for transportation of pilgrims have been mandated to screen their pilgrims’ luggage thoroughly against traveling along with rats, other rodents or contaminated items. The chairman described Saudi’s step as an ideal Islamic practice and one which NAHCON and the world of medicine identify as a safety precaution. Hence, NAHCON will fully collaborate with Saudi Arabia in maintaining this.
In his own submission, the minister of health quickly nailed the matter when he gave an update on the Lassa fever scourge declaring it almost over. He urged Nigerian media to adopt the habit of being positive in their reportage and giving government benefit of the doubt while reporting only substantiated information. He reassured that government was doing much to curtail the infection without making much media noise about it. He further disclosed that data from his ministry’s weekly update on Lassa fever showed only one new case of the infection being officially recorded in the previous week; an indication that the disease is at the verge of being curtailed completely for now because it tends to resurface during the dry season when infected rats invade our homes for food which they no longer find in the bushes during rainy season. However, this time around, he claimed that government is fanatically focused in bringing down the disease hence, the Federal Ministry of Health (FMH) had set up a Lassa fever monitoring task force entrusted with the responsibility of attaining and sustaining a total wipe out of the menace no matter the season. Members of this task force, created for diseases surveillance and control, have been trained to be vigilant and to hold any suspicious or rumored case as serious and in need of prompt action. He also reassured that members of the committee, equipped with necessary laboratory equipment and treatment drugs, have been going round the country sniffing for the disease and treating same because early diagnosis and treatment are crucial. In addition to the above, Lassa fever specialized centers for the purpose of quick response have been created in three areas identified as endemic points and in Gwagwalada, Federal Capital Territory, while isolation centers have been made mandatory in every specialist and teaching hospital across the country. The minister further added that as at March this year, World Health Organization, WHO, released a bulletin that for five consecutive weeks, the disease had been on a steady decline demonstrating that public health measures are proving effective.
Indeed, one of the minister’s strongest arguments was that if the Lassa fever outbreak had reached an epidemic level as being depicted by the Nigerian media, WHO would have since imposed a travel ban into and out of the country or would have at least issued a travel warning to persons wishing to visit the country. But none of these has happened so far.
Despite the positive development, the FMH in conjunction with NAHCON are not leaving anything to chance. Dr. Ibrahim Kana of the FMH and coordinator between the health ministry and NAHCON disclosed this much when he outlined proactive measures already put in place to safeguard health of pilgrims before and during their return trips from the holy land; and to assure the Saudi government that Nigeria is taking the Lassa fever fear with the seriousness it deserves. Towards this end, medical screening for this year’s Hajj will commence early and will go beyond the normal sugar and high blood pressure tests. After screening which will begin at ward level, another will be held at departure points in the presence of representatives of WHO and those of the Saudi ministry of health wherefrom a certificate of health clearance will be issued to the persons. This certificate will be presented to the Saudi authorities at the arrival point. If on the other hand a pilgrim is detected with fever, Lassa fever shall be suspected until proven otherwise. This will ensure that only physically fit Nigerians make the pilgrimage. Similarly, he disclosed that a meeting was held between his ministry, State Pilgrims’ Welfare Boards (SPWB), National Aviation Agency (NAA) and airline operators where they all resolved to work towards the same objective. On their part, SPWBs promised to thoroughly screen pilgrims and their baggage and to report any suspicious case to health workers. They will determine that contaminated items or suspicious foods are not carried out of the camps. The airline operators also resolved to disallow anyone showing signs of fever from boarding their aircrafts and will not charge for such persons “no show”. The health workers on their part will henceforth begin a nationwide awareness program highlighting the relevance of hygiene in the fight against Lassa fever and on the need to report any fever cases promptly. All channels will be deployed in doing this including use of posters, handbills, environmental health workers and use of town criers where necessary. In all, Dr. Kana emphasized that information sharing is key. He expressed optimism that if these proactive plans are properly followed, Nigeria will win Saudi Arabia’s confidence as it did in the case of Ebola.
Fatima Usara is with NAHCON media unit. [myad]