Although a number of states in the federation are currently battling with the outbreak of lassa fever epidemic, in Akwa Ibom, the case is different as the state government says; it is leaving no stone unturned to contain the scourge.
In this exclusive interview with DENNIS UDOMA in Uyo, Epidemiologist with the State Ministry of Health, Dr. Aniekeme Uwah spoke on a number of issues and the level of preparations put on ground to prevent the epidemic. Excerpts:
*The news of lassa fever epidemic is spreading across the country on daily basis like a wild fire. As the State’s Epidemiologist, what is the situation in Akwa Ibom and, what measures are on ground to contain the menace should there be any emergency?
Right now, there is no case of lassa fever in Akwa Ibom state though, we are aware that, the outbreak has spread to about 14 states in Nigeria.
This recent outbreak started sometime last year, and from available statistics, about 14 states have been affected. There are about 50 deaths recorded and the figures keep on changing everyday, while a couple of people have been placed under surveillance.
*Can you mention how many people affected so far since the outbreak of the epidemic?
Figures are also changing everyday and so, I cannot give the exact figures right now. The epidemic has so far spread to a neighbouring state like Rivers where some days ago, the data we got is that, five people have died and more than 100 people are under surveillance right now.
Recently, we also heard that there have been cases in Ebonyi State even though it’s not sharing boundaries with Akwa Ibom.
Based on that, the government of Akwa Ibom state has really done a lot in terms of preparations in case of any possible outbreak in the state. We are not just starting the preparations now, we started it since last year when we had the National Lassa Fever Day on September 27, 2015.
That was when we started the awareness campaign. So in terms of awareness creation, we have done a lot, like producing flyers and bill boards. We had meetings with disease surveillance/notification officers for them to continue to carry out their surveillance activities.
The Commissioner for Health even had a state broadcast on lassa fever that day too. So with this recent outbreak, we are just trying to build on what we had started. Right now, we are trying to erect more bill boards to create awareness, we are currently producing jingles that would be aired on radio in the three major languages; Ibibio, Annang and Oron. Before the week runs out, you will begin to hear those jingles on radio and television.
Also, our surveillance officers are already working very hard to ensure that active surveillance are carried out at the borders, for instance the Local Government Areas that share boundaries with Rivers State to watch out for any active suspected case.
Then at the level of the Ministry of Health, we are having regular meetings of our Rapid Response Team and a state meeting on lassa fever.
It’s going to involve every stakeholder in infection, operational control and outbreak control too.
The Commissioner for Health will preside over the meeting which will hold by 3 pm in the ministry to really come out with a master-plan to tackle any outbreak that may occur in the state, even though we are not praying for it to happen but, we are trying to put our house in order.
In terms of equipment, during the Ebola outbreak, we had acquired personal protection equipment and a number of them were not used because there was no Ebola outbreak here in Akwa Ibom. So that equipment is still there and ready to be used if need be.
In terms of having isolation centers, the fact is that during Ebola outbreak too, isolation centers were created at IDH, Ikot Ekpene and its still there, while in Uyo, the University Teaching Hospital (UUTH) is also available in case of any suspected case.
We are also trying to see how we can acquire more of Bps in case, there is an outbreak. We have also ordered the supply of debalvirine drugs from Federal Ministry of Health and I believe within the week, we will have our supplies. We had some supplies sometime ago but, it expired because we never used them.
Those are some of the few things we have done and we all believe that with these, if there is any case of laser fever we should be able to contain it.
*You were one of Nigeria’s most courageous health volunteers that fought the outbreak of Ebola Virus to an end in Liberia in 2015. How would you bring your experience to bear to end the recent lassa fever outbreak in the country?
Oh! For an outbreak like this, one of the things that is very critical is coordination. Coordination is important because, when a thing like this happens you will see different stakeholders coming in, different partners getting involved. So, if you have good coordination; then you have people working effectively. Sometimes you know, the response may not be effective because people are not working as one.
That is one of the experiences I really got when I was in Liberia for six months during the Ebola outbreak. Coordination was very vital and we were able to put that in place. That was what led to Liberia being declared Ebola free long before other countries like Guinea Bissau and Sierra Leone despite the fact that, Liberia had the largest outbreak cases in terms of the number of people that died.
Those are some of the things we want to bring to bear in Akwa Ibom, to make sure that we are not taken unawares, and that is why we have been meeting trying to make sure that the necessary personnel are in the right places, and that they know what to do if need be.
That is why we are having a state meeting today (Wednesday) with stakeholders like World Health Organization (W. H. O.), United Nations Children’s Education Fund (UNICEF) and all other big Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and many others that are involved in emergencies like this.
I think other ways we can really manage any outbreak, since prevention they say is better than cure, no matter any level of preparation, is better to prevent it completely, and we have been trying to highlight all these, the need for people to keep their environments clean. That’s one of the very simple ways to prevent lassa fever.
At least, we know that the vectors are rats. If you can just keep your environments clean, hardly will you have rats around your house.
Those are some of the things we feel we should encourage people to do. Another way is that, people should stop bush burning. In as much as people are preparing for the planting season, there are other ways of cutting the grasses, may be allowing them to dry and turn them to manure instead of burning. This is because by the time you burn the grasses, the fire makes the rats to run out from the bushes to the households, and then we will be infected with mistiness and nautiluses.
Also, the manner people are exposing their food stuffs could be another way of contacting lassa fever, because once the foods are exposed to excretions from the rats it is possible for one to be infected. Sometimes, you see people dry their grains on the road side or keep them carelessly. These kinds of behaviours have to stop.
Some other people eat rats and it should be discouraged. You know, there are states in Nigeria where rats are delicacy and right now, the government has banned eating of rats in Benue state.
Knowing that cats are natural enemies to rats, it is advisable people have cats around their houses to checkmate rats; it would be very good at times like this.
*Are you saying that more cats should be imported into the state in view of this development to checkmate rats in households?
We have enough cats already in Nigeria. I don’t think we need to import them but, it’s also good to have them around in our households to checkmate rats. If you have cats around in a home, the rats will certainly vanish.
So, apart from the preparedness, it’s also good to prevent an outbreak of a disease. Those are some of the things I have learned and when we were in Liberia to fight Ebola, before we left we taught the people certain things they could do to prevent contacting Ebola.