Nigeria: Curtailing the Spread of H1n1virus

2 February 2010

The Federal Ministry of Health on Monday January 18, 2010, confirmed the first Nigerian to die from the H1N1 virus, or swine 'flu. The case involved a 38-year-old female in Lagos who tested positive to the virus. The lady who had a history of travel to the United States three months earlier developed a respiratory tract infection six weeks after returning to Nigeria and died on Tuesday January 5, 2010 at a hospital on Victoria Island, Lagos. So far, about twenty-seven countries have been hit by swine flu.

In its latest update, the Federal Ministry of Health reported eleven laboratory-confirmed cases of H1N1 influenza, including the January 5 fatality. Following the death of the female patient, a total of 52 samples of swabs from those who had close contact with the deceased were taken to the laboratory. Eight out of the forty-six tested positive to the virus. The death recorded from the disease and the statistics of laboratory-confirmed cases indicate that swine flu is finally here in Nigeria.
It is not unlikely that the rate of fatality and infection is higher than the figures officially released by the Federal Ministry of Health considering the fact that the country at present lacks adequate testing facilities and limited access of many Nigerians to healthcare. Many could have also died from the disease without being diagnosed of the virus owing to the widespread ignorance about symptoms of the influenza not only among the general population, but also by some community health workers, particularly at the primary level of the healthcare delivery system in the country.

While it was proper for the Honourable Minster of Health, Professor Babatunde Osotimehin, to urge Nigerians who present symptoms of the disease to report at the healthcare delivery centre nearest to them for proper medical attention, we observe that this can only be done if people to who the message is directed have the knowledge of what the symptoms are. The first case of fatality was diagnosed with some of the suspect symptoms and others including pneumonia, shortness of breath and respiratory distress. The profusion of these symptoms and their variability both call for extensive public enlightenment on the common warning signs of the disease to look out for, and the preventive measures.

Although we appreciate the recent release of money by the Federal Ministry of Health to combat the spread of the disease, the latest death and the spate of infection among Nigerians could have been averted, or managed better, if such funds were made available for the same purpose when the first case of the influenza was recorded last year involving a 9-year-old American resident in Lagos. Those entrusted with responsibility of managing the funds should apply them judiciously by immediately acquiring vaccines and not wait until we are confronted with an epidemic in the country. Public enlightenment should focus on the rural populace among whom health education is low.

We recommend increase in the number of testing facilities and centres to make them widely available across the country. The services could be extended to major airports in the country for prompt screening and testing of visitors coming from swine flu-prone countries. Nigerians returning from such areas should be thoroughly screened and closely monitored until their status is confirmed. We urge government to generally increase access of Nigerians to healthcare delivery in the country and encourage awareness of health risks among citizens.