Why the Federal Government should prioritise sensitisation in eliminating Lassa fever

The family members of a deceased 33-year-old Lassa fever victim in Abuja are declining to collect his body from the National Hospital in the Federal Capital city, nearly two weeks after his death. An employee in the hospital, speaking under the condition of anonymity, stated that the reason for their seemingly negligent attitude lies within the nature of his death and the fear of contracting the disease while making burial plans. As such, they have refused to receive any calls put through to them from the hospital’s staff.

Reports from the hospital state that the body has been appropriately decontaminated and therefore poses no threat. However, the deceased’s family remains unconvinced. Dr. Tayo Haastrup, spokesperson for the National Hospital, revealed that the hospital is currently awaiting further directives from the Federal Ministry of Health concerning how to handle the corpse.

This reaction from the family of the deceased is a clear case of the adverse results of improper sensitisation of the general public in such matters by the government. The Ministry of Health is presently pursuing initiatives such as establishing a committee on Lassa fever eradication, empowering diagnostic centres across the country, as well as the National Centre for Disease Control and providing new laboratories in Bauchi, Plateau, Nassarawa, Ogun, Taraba and Niger States.

The ministry is thus urging Nigerians to remain calm, as measures will be put in place by the government to eliminate the spread of Lassa fever soon. Despite the aforementioned, the incident in Abuja proves that the government is yet to fully reassure Nigerians about their safety, by putting the most basic tool to use; sensitisation.

It is not entirely misplaced for people and societies to display symptoms of Nosophobia, in the form of taking extreme measures to avoid a disease or an epidemic out of fear. In 2014, Liberia witnessed a horrific display of such fear and ignorance when families began dumping the bodies of their deceased relatives in the streets in order to protect themselves from contracting the Ebola virus.

They took this route, rather than the government’s directive to leave the bodies at home for decontamination and proper disposal, failing to realise that they were exposing the community to more harm with their actions.

Sensitisation by the Nigerian government can definitely go a long way in reducing the spread of Lassa fever along with the panic that is generated from its continuous presence. Nigerians remain unsure as to what kind of rats actually carry the disease, the effects of a decontamination, how long it lasts and how, precisely, Lassa fever is transmitted from one person to the other.

The Ministry of Health and the Federal Government could take more effective steps towards allaying public anxiety and curbing or eliminating Lassa fever, if it invests properly in sensitisation. According to Dr. Gbenga Kuponiyi, sensitisation should be routinely practiced, given the fact that some diseases – like Lassa fever – are endemic to Nigeria and the seasons in which they occur can be predicted. Communities should be constantly aware of what to do to discover noticeable symptoms and how to protect themselves when they do.

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