Tonye Princewill

February 3, 2012

Lassa fever…and the ‘Joker’ was death (1)

Lassa fever…and the ‘Joker’ was  death (1)

Patients at the LASUTH as doctors called off strike

By Prince Tonye Princewill
THERE is no “good” time for a disease epidemic—certainly not a deadly hemorrhagic fever, such as Lassa. But the worst possible period is now, when we are so deeply mired in a social crisis.

Nevertheless, our survival requires that we fight, and win, on both fronts:  That we battle both the viral invader and our current social aberration with the same resourcefulness and resolve.

Fate is not known for its compassion or for dealing the cards of destiny at one’s own convenience. In the game of life, we take the cards as they come and play our hand as best we can.

In nation building, as in cards, there is always a joker in the deck. You never know just where it is. But you know it’s there; and you know it’ll be flashed, sooner or later.

Lassa fever is the “joker” we all have come to fear. Ever since its original appearance, in Borno State, (coincidentally the same birth place as Boko Haram) more than 40 years ago, Lassa has been lurking unseen in our midst–leaping out of the shadows, sporadically, to spirit away sons and daughters of Nigeria.

The disease is spreading death and disability north, south, east and west, bereaving loved ones as well as robbing the nation of some of its most highly skilled healthcare workers—doctors and nurses who, in the line of duty, heroically exposed themselves and paid the supreme price.

Stalking our land in stealth, this vicious viral killer has struck in seven or eight states now. Not left out, is my own beloved Rivers, where a resident oil industry worker and a member of the National Youth Service Corps from Ebonyi, serving in Opobo/Nkoro, were recently infected, fatally.

The story is similar in Nasarawa, Plateau, Yobe, Lagos, Edo and Taraba. At the Ikwo Local Government Council, in Ebonyi State, one medical doctor has perished from a Lassa-like illness while others are reportedly undergoing treatment.

For what it’s worth, Nigerians are hardly alone in their anguish. Lassa fever is endemic to West Africa, particularly in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea (and to some extent in Mali and Senegal). It infects 100,000 to 300,000 individuals annually in the sub-region, causing an estimated 5,000 deaths.

At bare minimum, there is urgent need for other levels of government to become more aggressive and pro-active in augmenting federal and international efforts to curtail the Lassa epidemic. They should not wait for cases to crop up, to raise awareness of the need for early detection and quick reporting.

Looking beyond these conventional stratagems though, the resurgence of Lassa fever could, conceivably, be a timely bit of political manna—a means of dissuading at least some aberrant elements from further anti-social activity.

This may require, among other measures, making use of the fine and performing arts, in addition to a massive campaign in the communication media.

The epidemic ought to become a rallying point, of sorts. If sufficient energy, effort and resources were invested, a re-ordering of our national priorities and a renewed sense of unity and purpose might be among the dividends.

After all, if we fail to cope with the Lassa fever challenge, whether Nigeria remains one nation, or scatters into twenty, is academic. There won’t be enough people left to populate even the smallest country.

Lassa fever is controllable; but not without political stability. “The scarcity of resources…and the political instability that characterises the West African countries,” wrote O. Ogbu, in The Journal of Vector Born Diseases (2007), “would continue to impede efforts to control Lassa Fever…”

The horror of Lassa, is not just parentless children and childless parents. It is the terror of the unknown, the primordial fear of an invisible and seemingly invincible enemy: An exotic virus whose origins are shrouded in mystery and whose presence cannot be perceived, until after it has attacked.

As early as 1958, a clinical description of Lassa fever appeared in a Sierra Leonean publication. But according to U.S. science fiction writer, Tara K. Harper, it “received little or no attention”.

It was events following the illness of Laura Wine—a white American nurse, who may have attended to an infected Nigerian– that led to the isolation of the virus. Wine worked at the Ecumenical Church of West Africa’s (ECWA’s) clinic in Lassa—a village of about 1000, in Borno State’s Yedseram River valley.

When the nurse’s condition deteriorated, she was admitted to the ECWA’s Evangelical Hospital at Jos, under the care of Jeanette Troup and Charlotte Shaw (also white Americans). With gauze wrapped around an injured finger, Shaw swabbed Wine’s throat: A lapse that proved fatal for Shaw.

Let us remember the value of even one life…


To be continued.