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Ignorance worsening burden of tropical diseases in Nigeria – Experts

Ignorance, myths, and stigma have continued to drive the spread of Neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) in Nigeria, with over 122 million Nigerians put at risk, experts have revealed.

NTDs are a group of preventable and treatable diseases which kill, cause impairment and render millions of people around the world permanently disable every year, but, experts disclose that several citizens have poor knowledge of what they are or how they can be contracted.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has identified 20 NTDs and 14 of them are endemic in Nigeria. They include treponematoses (yaws), lymphatic filariasis (elephantiasis), leprosy (Hansen disease), Chagas disease, human African trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness), onchocerciasis (river blindness), schistosomiasis (bilharziasis), among others.

Available data shows that NTDs are common in tropical or sub-tropical regions due to poverty, poor sanitation, lack of safe water sources, substandard housing conditions and deficient healthcare access, among others.

They are termed neglected because they are common among the down-trodden in Nigeria, low income earners, and those living in rural areas. Nearly all Local Government Areas across the country are endemic.

However, they are often dismissed as witchcraft, Oedema (swelling) or poisoning among other myths and misconceptions. Sufferers therefore seek help elsewhere other than a medical facility, thereby causing the condition to deteriorate further.

Read Also: 122m Nigerians at risk of NTDs

Mordecai Israel, NTDs Coordinator in Rivers State, stated that the fear of stigmatisation and ostracisation is also a major factor that prevents those who are diagnosed of these conditions to avail themselves for treatment.

This was the case of Gloria Perry (not real names) 45-year-old mother of nine who battles Lymphatic filariasis commonly known as elephantiasis. It is an infection which occurs when filarial parasites are transmitted to humans through mosquitoes.

Perry, told BusinessDay that said she had difficulty accessing care for fear of stigmatisation. She added that her petty trading business suffered because patronage reduced.

Moreso, Perry who hails from Ogu-Bolo local government area in the state narrated that when the condition started, she dismissed the swelling on her leg as Oedema and people around her told her that it was a spiritual problem or she must have stepped on poison until her condition deteriorated.

“My condition started in October 2009 after I delivered. I did not understand what it was; they said it was a spiritual problem. I did not take any drugs, I went to Church, the pastor prayed for me severally, he poured holy water and the leg came down. But, after the third time, the leg stopped going down and got worse”, she said.

” I am in pain, I can’t move. When I went to the hospital they drove me away and said they can’t handle my case, I felt ashamed. I am a petty trader but people stopped patronising me and they keep staring at my legs”, she added.

Perry had lived for many years without treatment, until she eventually resorted to self medication.

Like Lucy, Israel said due to ignorance, myths, misconception and fear of stigmatisation and ostracisation, hundreds of sufferers have refused to seek proper treatment for their conditions.

Israel informed that 13 out 23 Local Government Areas, LGAs in Rivers state are endemic for elephantiasis, while over 138 million Nigerians are at risk of this disease across the country.

The coordinator reiterated that early detection could help tackle NTDs, but the ignorance, misconceptions in addition to low funding among others continue to stall progress.

Nse Akpan, national coordinator of NTDs elimination programme pointed out that apart from the pain NTDs inflict on sufferers, it also has several economic, health and social implications for Nigeria.

Akpan said this at a two-day media dialogue organised by the Child Rights Information Bureau (CRIB) of the federal ministry of information and culture in collaboration with the federal ministry of health and the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) in Port Harcourt.

He stressed that NTDs promote low productivity and health complications and poor education outcomes.

Meanwhile, Nigeria has set a target to eliminate NTDs by 2030, but the goal is being threatened by the aforementioned factors. Of the 15 NTDs that are endemic in the country, Nigeria has successfully eradicated guinea worm disease (GWD). The country was certified GWD free by the world health organisation (WHO) in 2010.

Akpan, while noting that poor hygiene fuels NTDs; said communities need to be mobilised to take appropriate actions. This, he said, can be achieved using various channels of the media.

He however regretted that even the available funding is often not released on time and there is still a high dependence on foreign donations.

“We call ourselves the giant of Africa, but we are actually surviving on donor funding. Funding from the Federal Government has been allocated but release is epileptic because we are still enjoying donor support. A time will come when Nigeria will not see donor support”, he said

He reiterated that awareness, funding for the elimination of the disease must be improved upon.

But, the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) WASH specialist, Bioye Ogunjobi, decried the attitude of states towards drugs donated for treatment and management of NTDs worth millions of naira.

According to him, about 500 million tablets of mass administration of medicines, including ivermectin and albendazole, which are donated by UNICEF go to waste every year due to the failure of states to invest in the fight against NTDs by providing counterpart funds for logistics to distribute the medicines.

He therefore called on all states government to prioritise and intensify investment to eliminate NTDs.

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