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An under the radar crisis

Fighting the spread of Lassa Fever in rural Nigeria

  • by FatimaKhonat
  • 28 May 19

Infection Control Centre (ICC) within the Federal Medical Centre of Owo, Ondo State, Nigeria

Blog Post

In late January, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) announced a Lassa fever outbreak with over one hundred confirmed cases and 31 deaths. Start Network member ALIMA alerted the Start Fund and was rapidly awarded funding to meet the needs of those affected. With a working presence in the region, ALIMA's response activities included health and sanitation activities with sensitisation workshops for vulnerable communities.

In this blog post the Start Fund's MEAL advisor, Ian Simcox-Heath, and Start Fund programme officer Anne Noirhomme, give their firsthand account of ALIMA's funded response on the ground: 

“Wait! First you need to rinse your hands!” exclaims the doctor to my left. He’s watching me carefully from behind his goggles. I’d used the chlorinated water solution while wearing my outer gloves, but had forgotten to repeat this action with just my inner layer. I’m standing inside the ‘High Risk Zone’ in the Federal Medical Centre’s Infection Control Centre (ICC) in the village of Owo in Ondo State, southern Nigeria. My colleague Anne and I have just been shown around the facility for infected patients and by now our yellow HazMat suits are halfway off as we try to mimic the choreography of the staff who are changing beside us. I’d worn it for barely 30 minutes and already was drenched in sweat and couldn’t wait to take it off, but rushing would risk contamination. A chorus of velcro rips and unzips follow, and finally our boots are sprayed with a disinfecting mist. We wiggle out of them with just our feet, doing the “Lassa dance” as the staff like to joke, carefully step across the dividing line on the floor, and take in a deep breath as we walk outside into the open air.

Anne and Ian with ALIMA medical staff

Such is the daily reality of health workers supported by ALIMA, a health-based NGO that received funding from the Start Fund in January to March 2019 in response to an outbreak of Lassa Fever.

This acute haemorrhagic virus is similar to Ebola, except less publicly known and less scientifically understood, and has been a recurring issue in Nigeria for the last few years. Since the start of 2019, it has killed dozens of people and infected hundreds more in Ondo State alone, a number that jumps into the hundreds and thousands respectively when factoring in other states. “When I think about those affected by the crises the Start Fund responds to”, reflected my colleague Anne during the visit, “I often have families and communities in mind. I tend to forget about first responders and the critical role they play in alleviating suffering when disasters happen. Stepping quite literally into the shoes of these nurses and doctors was very eye-opening. They are the true heroes of this crisis.”

Left to right: Jackson Katembo (ALIMA Nurse), Arowolo Caroline (Hygienist), Dr Sampson Owhin (Haematologist and Lassa Fever Case Manager).

Equally humbling was meeting with patients who had received free care thanks to this project, including an infant and his mother, a 10-year old boy whose father sat eagerly across a barrier to spend time with him, several young women, and the infant’s grandmother. The most talkative among the group was a 24-year old woman n, who worked as a pharmacist before being admitted to the centre of 5 March. She looked forward to going home, but not to the reception she might face.

“The stigmatisation is still high”, she explained. “When you go back [home], nobody wants to talk to you or be associated with you. Some people think it is caused by witches. Most people don’t believe that it is a disease and don’t want to come to the hospital.” The woman's mother was there looking on and added. “When I got the news [that my daughter got Lassa Fever], I was crying. I could not even sleep. But I knew they would take proper care of her… God bless ALIMA”.

Since 2018, Lassa Fever has transitioned in Ondo State from a seasonal occurrence to a year-round threat, with particularly deadly spikes occurring between November and March, but infections continuing outside of these months. First responders like the ones we met will do what they can, but without the financial wherewithal to continue providing care, this virus will continue to strike the heart of this welcoming rural community.

Read the testimonies of first responders to the Lassa Fever outbreak.

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  • by FatimaKhonat