How silent but formidable enemies lurk in Benue

Benue state is silently suffering from certain diseases for which lives are being lost quietly as JOHN SHIAONDO reports.

Benue in the recent past has been grappling with various diseases. Just like insecurity, the health landscape has been challenged by tuberculosis, cholera, measles, Buruli ulcer and a fresh wave of COVID-19 infections.

Tuberculosis

Recent available data indicates that the state recorded over 7,000 TB cases in 2023. This information was shared by the state commissioner for health and human services Yanimar Ortese during a press briefing for the commemoration of the 2024 World TB Day in Makurdi. This is the highest in the North-central region and ranked sixth in the country.

Despite efforts to control the disease, TB remains a leading cause of death globally, affecting primarily the poor and those with weakened immune systems.

Measles

Also, the state has seen the outbreaks of measles and Buruli ulcer. The commissioner also reported 256 suspected cases of measles with 31 confirmed, indicating a pressing public health concern.

He said, “The state is currently experiencing outbreaks of measles with 256 suspected cases and 31 confirmed cases across five local government areas including, Buruku, Gwer west, Logo, Ushongo and Vandeikya.

“The state team has responded to the situation and our surveillance officers are following the events very closely. The ministry is also investigating about 354 suspected cases of Buruli Ulcer across 11 LGAs. You will be updated on the outcome in due course.”

In early 2021, a cholera outbreak was also reported, with a notable number of cases stemming from communities along the River Benue.

NCDC report

According to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), there were 23,550 suspected cases of cholera reported in Nigeria in 2022 with Benue among with 718 reported cases. The majority of confirmed cases (63%) were among children aged 5 to 14 years.

As of 31st December 2023, based on NCDC report, Benue reported seven suspected cases of cholera. In the Epidemiological Week 52 of 2023, the state reported two new cases.

From the records, though there seems to be significant improvement in the numbers of cholera infection, the outbreak highlighted the vulnerabilities of populations relying on the river for water, underscoring the need for improved sanitation and access to clean water.

COVID-19 resurgence

Even as the world continues to recover from the pandemic, Benue experienced a fresh outbreak of COVID-19 with 25 new cases reported by the World Health Organization (WHO). This serves as a reminder that the virus remains prevalent.

Mention must also be made of lassa fever, a silent but formidable enemy that lurks in the heart of the state, prompting the Ministry of Health and Human Services to take decisive action recently.

The press conference

During a press conference by the commissioner, he said the state government through his ministry had activated a State Multi-Sectoral Emergency Operations Centre for Lassa Fever (LF-EOC) expected to be a beacon of hope. He said a coordinated effort was being made to stem the tide of an outbreak that had placed the state at a precipice.

Based on the statistics provided at the press briefing by the commissioner, the state was said to have 725 suspected cases, 55 confirmed and 13 lives lost.

But also giving hope on the possible cure if the disease is detected early, he said, “Amidst the statistics, there are stories of triumph of four individuals in an IDP camp who, against all odds, were treated and monitored until they emerged asymptomatic, from the shadow of death.

According to him, the treatment centre at Benue State University Teaching Hospital (BSUTH) also stood as a bulwark, having managed 90 cases since the outbreak’s onset.

He however, noted that the state government has shown commitment to improving healthcare by allocating at least 15% of the state’s budget to the sector in line with the African Union’s target.

“This investment is expected to bolster the fight against these diseases and improve the overall health infrastructure in Benue state.

“The increase in disease outbreaks in Benue state calls for a multi-faceted approach, including government intervention, community engagement and international support.

“It is a stark reminder of the ongoing battle against infectious diseases and the importance of sustained public health efforts,” he added.

It is also worthy of note that the several health challenges the state is battling with do not also exempt malaria which is a significant concern.

In 2021, an estimated 68 million malaria cases were reported in Nigeria, resulting in 194,000 deaths due to the disease.

Nigeria has the highest burden of malaria globally, accounting for nearly 27% of the global malaria burden.

During the 5-year period from January 2015 to December 2019, a total of 1,470,523 cases of fever were recorded in Benue.

Out of these, 899,480 cases (61.2%) were laboratory-confirmed to be malaria.

Most of the confirmed cases were uncomplicated malaria (880,811 cases, 97.9%) while a smaller proportion (18,669 cases, 2.1%) were classified as severe malaria.

It was unfortunate that while Benue is battling with outbreak of diseases, the state is also dealing with a humanitarian crisis due to the displacement of over 1.8 million people, which has overwhelmed the capacity of the state government.

This situation has been exacerbated by recent armed herdsmen attacks, leading to an increase in the number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) seeking refuge in camps.

The bad living condition in some camp has also served to contribute to spread of diseases, particularly among IDPs and other citizens of the state.

In terms of HIV, Benue has a high burden of the diseases with HIV prevalence of 15.4%. However, efforts are being made to address these issues of diseases outbreak, including interventions by stakeholders, such as USAID/HFG, CS-SUNN among others in budget advocacy, capacity building and establishing a Resource Mobilization Technical Working Group.

Collaborations

Just recently, the Nigeria Veterinary Medical Association (NVMA) and butchers assoiation united to combat tuberculosis not just in Benue but in Nigeria.

In a groundbreaking move, the NVMA  joined forces with local butchers to combat the spread of tuberculosis from animals to humans. This partnership marked a significant step forward in public health and safety.

Dr Andrew Amine, the state chairman of NVMA emphasised the importance of this collaboration during a sensitisation visit to the Wurukum abattoir in Makurdi, the capital.

He expressed confidence that with the combined efforts of all stakeholders, the eradication of tuberculosis is within reach.

Echoing the optimistic sentiment of the 2024 World Tuberculosis Day theme, ‘Yes, we can end TB’, Amine stated, “We are sure that tuberculosis can be eradicated through collaborative efforts of all the stakeholders. If we work together, we will tackle the spread of the disease head-on.”

Dr Nancy Nzelu, a lecturer at the Joseph Sarwuan Tarka University, Makurdi (JOSTUM) in the Department of Veterinary Public Health and Preventive Medicine, advised butchers on the importance of personal protective equipment, urging them to always use hand gloves and aprons while handling animals to prevent disease transmission.

Dr Nzelu highlighted the risks involved in processing potentially infected animals and the importance of proper hygiene practices. 

“You must always endeavor to wash your hands at intervals as a measure to tackle the spread of tuberculosis and other diseases from animals to human beings,” she advised.

The initiative taken by NVMA one could say underscores the potential impact of tuberculosis not only on individuals but also on their families and the broader community.

With this partnership, the NVMA and butchers are setting a precedent for proactive measures against zoonotic diseases in Nigeria.

Meanwhile, the state chairman, Butchers Association, Malam Umar Sarki, pledged that the association would ensure that only disease free animals would be slaughtered at the Wurukum abattoir.

Sarki further assured that he would convene a meeting of all butchers in Makurdi and sensitise them on the need to slaughter only animals that were certified disease free to avert the spread of diseases from animals to humans particularly tuberculosis.

Governor Hyacinth Alia few weeks back announced the reopening of schools of nursing to upgrade medical and health practices. The government is also focusing on agricultural activities, providing micro and small grants to farmers, which can indirectly impact health by improving nutrition and food security.

In an interview with Dr Ortese, he said the Ministry of Health and Human Services is implementing national and state government health policies, with programmes such as immunisation, HIV/AIDS and STDs enlightenment, safe motherhood, and epidemic control.

According to him, the ministry is also involved in the renovation of health facilities and the procurement of drugs and equipment for hospital.

“In a significant move, the state government has allocated 15% of its budget to the health sector, aiming to tackle malnutrition and other health issues.

“This allocation is part of the government’s development initiatives to improve the health security of its citizens and reflects a comprehensive approach to addressing the health challenges in Benue with focus on both immediate needs and long-term infrastructure and capacity building,” he added.