18th February, 2012
Fear has gripped medical personnel in Rivers state due to deadly Lassa fever epidemic that has hit the oil and gas-rich Niger Delta region, with a female nurse already dead, while six cases have been confirmed.
The Rivers Commissioner for Health, Dr. Sampson Parker, told reporters in Port Harcourt yesterday that the acute viral illness is caused by rats and very difficult to diagnose.
He stated that the Rotimi Amaechi administration was determined to provide qualitative healthcare for Rivers people, as indicated by the construction of primary healthcare centres across the 23 LGAs of the state, with 110 now functional and to construct 160 more before the end of this year.
Dr. Parker said doctors and other health personnel were being employed in the newly-built health centres and others, with adequate drugs and other infrastructure provided in Rivers hospitals.
He said: “Rivers state currently has a challenge of Lassa fever. It is real. It is the first time medical notice of the ailment is taken in the state. With one person already dead, it is an epidemic.
“Lassa fever is carried by species of rats with eight breasts, which stay in filthy environment.
“We must ensure personal and environmental hygiene, as well as good waste disposal. All domestic wastes should be covered in bags and disposed off appropriately.
“Rivers people should be vigilant and correct one another, because one person’s mistake can be disastrous. The dead medical staff might have ensured personal hygiene, but her neighbours might not have been very careful.
“Lassa fever is a viral illness. The symptoms are so varied and non-specific. Clinical diagnoses are often difficult. We must discourage self medication. Go to the nearest health facility for examination by health personnel.”
He added that “the rats shed the virus in urine and droppings. The virus is transmitted through direct contact when eating food contaminated with feaces and urine or cuts and sores, when they may have contact with them.
“There is airborne transmission, when a person inhales tiny particles in the air contaminated with rat excretions. Lassa fever is also spread through person to person contact with virus in the blood tissue, secretion or excretion of an infected individual. It is common in villages and healthcare settings and medical equipment.
“A complication of Lassa fever is deafness. Spontaneous abortion is another serious complication. Individuals at risk are those who live or visit areas with high population of rats (Mastomys rodents) infected with Lassa virus or exposed to infected humans.
“Rivers state government has procured all the needed drugs and protective items and equipment, including training and retraining. Health personnel should not entertain fear. Rivers state is sufficiently prepared.
“The Rapid Response Team for Lassa fever will be immediately pushing in rapid diagnostic kits. Rivers state government places emphasis on preventive and not curative health.”
He also stated that the signs and symptoms of Lassa fever typically occur one to three weeks after the patient had come in contact with the virus, including fever, pain behind the chest wall, sore throat, back pain, cough, abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhoea, facial swelling and mucosal bleeding, among others.
When caring for patients with Lassa fever, he said isolation precaution methods must be applied, including wearing of masks, gloves, gowns and goggles, as well as the use of infection control measures like sterilisation and isolating infected patients from contact with unprotected persons, until the disease had run its course.
Parker equally stressed that Cholera around Soku in the state was still being investigated and under control, revealing that six of the general hospitals in the state would soon be renovated.
He admitted that there was a challenge of manpower in the health sector, disclosing that Nigeria has just 55,000 medical doctors, dead or alive, while minimum of 100,000 doctors are needed for the over 150 million population.
Parker urged parents and guardians to always encourage their children and wards to take interest in Mathematics and English Language, which he said would serve as basis for studying Medicine, Pharmacy and other health-related courses.
He maintained that the malaria elimination programme in the state was on, with very good and robust results, especially by killing the larvae that would have developed into mosquitoes, through the spraying of chemicals with helicopters and other means.
He said neighbouring states and other states in Nigeria were being encouraged to take interest in the elimination of mosquitoes’ larvae and malaria elimination, insisting that malaria incidents in Rivers were drastically dropping.
While commenting on the first National Immunisation Plus Days campaign against polio, a viral disease, which causes paralysis in young people, leading to deformities and disabilities, he said the mass immunisation, which started yesterday in Rivers end on 21 February, for children under five, should be well supported.
He added that there had been no reported case of polio in Rivers state in the last five years, with the last case seen on May 31, 2007.
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By Okafor Ofiebor/Port Harcourt