Health sector failure: Concerns over anthrax disease outbreak

The federal government recently alerted Nigerians on the outbreak of anthrax disease in some West African countries; anthrax is zoonotic disease that can be transmitted from animals to humans. BENJAMIN SAMSON in this report seeks experts’ views on its spread and how it can be curtailed.

While raising the alarm, the federal government said neighbouring countries in the West African sub-region like northern Ghana bordering Burkina Faso and Togo have already recorded an outbreak.

 The permanent secretary, Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Ernest Umakhihe, who stated this in a statement, explained that anthrax spores, a bacterial disease naturally found in the soil, commonly affecting both domestic and wild animals, has claimed many lives.

“The general public is strongly advised to desist from the consumption of hides (ponmo), smoked meat and bush meat as they pose serious risk until the situation is brought under control,” he said.

He urged the public to remain calm and vigilant as the federal government has resuscitated a standing committee on the control of anthrax in the agricultural ministry, adding that relevant institutions and collaborators have been contacted with the aim of controlling the outbreak, in addition to the sensitisation of state directors of veterinary services nationwide.

Experts’ take

Speaking with this reporter, veterinary doctor Yunusa Maigida, also cautioned against the consumption of ponmo.

He said: “Anthrax spores are naturally found in the soil and commonly affect domestic and wild animals. People can get infected with anthrax spores if they come in contact with infected animals or contaminated animal products.

“The signs of anthrax include flu-like symptoms, such as cough, fever and muscle aches. If it is not diagnosed and treated early, it can lead to Pneumonia, severe lung problems, difficulty in breathing, shock and death.

“Being a bacterial disease, it responds to treatment with antibiotics and supportive therapy.  The disease is primarily an animal disease, but because of man’s closeness to animals, non-vaccinated animals with anthrax can easily be transmitted to man through the inhalation of anthrax spores or consumption of contaminated/infected animal products, such as hides and skin, meat or milk.

“However, anthrax is not a contagious disease, and so, one cannot get it by coming in close contact with an infected person. If you have made up your mind that nothing can separate you from your love for ponmo, it is important to know the symptoms of anthrax, so that you will not be caught unaware.

“There are other healthy alternatives to ponmo. Fish, chicken, turkey, and snails are some. We can explore making our dish sumptuous without putting our health at risk.”

Prevention

Speaking on its prevention, Maigida said vaccination of animals is the easiest and cheapest means of preventing the disease.

 He said:  The yearly vaccination of animals with anthrax spore vaccines are available at National Veterinary Research Institute, Vom, Plateau state, and is the cheapest and easiest means of prevention and control of the disease in animals.

“However, infected animals cannot be vaccinated but only animals at risk can be vaccinated. There is also the need to intensify animal vaccinations along Border States of Sokoto, Kebbi, Niger, Kwara, Oyo, Ogun and Lagos because of their proximity to Burkina Faso, Togo, Niger and Ghana. In fact, all states should join in the exercise so as to be on safer side.”

Similarly, a public health expert Dr. Anabel Aniagu, has urged Nigerians to exercise caution following the outbreak of anthrax. Aniagu in an interview with this reporter, explained that anthrax is a serious infectious disease caused by a spore-forming bacterium, which mainly affects livestock particularly cattle, sheep and goats.

 She stated that humans can become infected through contact with an infected animal or by inhaling spores.

She called on Nigerians to beware of human transmission, which, according to her, is a zoonotic disease caused by germs that have been reported in Ghana.

 She urged the general public to avoid direct contact with sick or dead animals, especially those exhibiting symptoms associated with anthrax, adding that farmers, herders, and individuals involved in animal husbandry must take extra care and seek veterinary assistance.

 She emphasised that proper hygienic practices should be followed when handling and processing animal products, recommending that farmers and others should wear protective clothing, such as gloves, when handling raw animal hides.

“I also implore all stakeholders in the food and agricultural industry to prioritise safety measures and adhere to bio-safety regulations to safeguard the health of our citizens. It is crucial for all Nigerians to remain calm but vigilant,” she said.

Timely warning

In his view, a professor of Veterinary Public Health and Preventive Medicine at the University of Jos, Becky Gwamna, told this reporter that she supports the warning issued by the federal government against the consumption of cow hides (ponmo), smoked meat and bush meat, following the reported outbreak of anthrax in some neighbouring countries.

She described the federal government’s warning as “timely and appropriate.”

 She said, “The warning is appropriate and timely because currently the Anthrax disease is ravaging Northern Ghana bordering Burkina Faso and Togo which are neighbouring countries.

“Anthrax is a serious infectious disease caused by a spore-forming, gram-positive, rod-shaped bacterium known as Bacillus anthracis. It occurs naturally in soil and mainly affects animals (domestic and wild animals) around the world,” she said.

She stated that people can get sick with Anthrax if they come in contact with infected animals or contaminated animal products.

 She added, “Places with an earlier history of Anthrax in wildlife or livestock need to be mindful of the potential for anthrax re-emergence, especially at the onset or end of wet seasons, thereby promoting possible outbreaks in animals and in humans.”

Asked if there was a link between anthrax and cow hides, smoked meat and bush meat, the Professor of Veterinary Public Health said, “Yes, there is a very strong link because anthrax is transmitted to humans through handling or eating meat from infected animal carcasses, contact with their products, such as hair, wool, hides, bones, or by breathing in spores.”

Poor awareness

She, however, lamented the low level of awareness and preparedness to prevent Anthrax disease from spreading to Nigeria.

He said, “There are concerns with regards to the outbreak of anthrax disease because of the free movement of animals across borders without check, and it should be a serious concern, particularly among communities that border the country, anthrax disease is highly zoonotic and can kill fast if not detected early.

 “I can tell you that it is just a small percentage of people that are aware of this disease, but beyond that, a greater majority of Nigerians are not aware because I am not aware of any jingle informing Nigerians that this disease is happening, and we have less number of people who can read. One can say that the level of preparedness is not too far from zero.”

Nigerians adamant

However, some consumers, traders and experts who spoke to our correspondent in separate interviews, said banning ponmo would further increase economic hardship on the poor masses.

 A consumer, Monsurat Adedeji, said she was substituting beef and fish with ponmo as a result of the high cost of the protein.

She said, “Personally, I like ponmo. It’s something many of us eat now since meat and fish are costly. It is also good for elderly people. If you have N300, you will buy ponmo which can serve five people whereas the least you can get is beef that will be N1, 000 and it is just five pieces or less.

“If the government decides to ban it, they want to inflict hunger on the people because the person that does not have money for meat will buy ponmo. I buy in large quantities, fry and keep it for cooking later, and sometimes, my children take it to school.

 Another consumer based in, Esther Iliya said, “I will advise them not to ban it because a lot of us cannot do without eating it, not only because we enjoy it, but because it saves money.

 “For example, I came to this market (Mararaba market) to buy things, my initial plan was to buy N2, 000 fish, but when I saw the size of fish they offered me, I had to change my mind. So, I decided to buy two Titus fish at N700 each then and one ponmo at N300, making a total of N1, 700. My brother, things are tough and one needs to work with a budget.”

 A caterer and Chief Executive Officer of Bimras Catering Services, Oghenekhor Irabor, said when planning for events, it was advisable to mix ponmo with meat or fish in order to save cost.

“In most occasions, if you don’t garnish vegetables with ponmo and dried fish, people don’t like it. People want to feel a different taste when eating vegetables and this is what ponmo and dried fish does.

 “It also helps with cost reduction when planning for events because instead of serving two meats, you can serve one ponmo, one meat or fish.

 “Assuming you are having a party and you bought meat of N100, 000, if you realise that it’s not enough, you can buy one bag of ponmo which is around 60 pieces to substitute it and it will be okay. So, banning it will affect Nigerians a lot,” she said further.

 Another caterer, Fatimah Sulaiman, stressed that eating cow skin was mostly required by the elderly people, adding that medical doctors would always recommend it for the elderly people who are at risk of eating beef. She said banning would leave such people with no alternative.

 On his part, Kabiru Agbon, a cow skin trader, said banning the consumption of ponmo would mean taking away his livelihood.

 “Ponmo, as far as I know, is good for eating; there is the white one they call bokoto. Why will the government want to ban this now? Don’t you know banning it is an attempt to cause problems and taking away the source of income of many of us? It’s just not possible.”

 In the same vein, the chairman, Butcher and Meat Sellers Association, Orange International Market Mararaba, Nasarawa state, Innocent Skekwoza, said any attempt to ban the consumption of cow skin would not only affect the consumers, but also take away jobs from some Nigerians.

“In olden days, cow skin was mainly used by our Muslim brothers as praying mats and some other leather forms. No one ate it before, but when civilization set in, people began to process it for consumption. Now that lots of Nigerians are eating it and it has become a daily job for many, banning it will have an effect on a lot of people.

“There are people that depend on the processing and another set in charge of the sales before you now talk about those consuming it. What will they be doing after the ban,” he said.

NAHCON’s warning

Meanwhile, the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) has cautioned Nigerian pilgrims to avoid the consumption of bush meat, hides (ponmo), smoked meat and others in view of the outbreak of anthrax disease in the West African sub-region.

The NAHCON commissioner in charge of health, Dr. Sa’id Ahmad Dumbulwa, in an interview with journalists in Abuja, said the caution was necessary in view of the trans-border trade between Ghana, Togo and Burkina Faso that had so far confirmed the outbreak of anthrax disease in some parts of their respective territories, and Nigeria.

He said, “NAHCON swiftly issued the advisory to pilgrims for fear of contact with Muslim brothers and sisters from those countries who would be taking part in this year’s Hajj exercise in Saudi Arabia, who though might not necessarily be infected by the disease, but for precautionary measures.”