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Ngozi And Oluchi’s Tales Of Surviving Lassa Fever In Nigeria

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A patient with a caregiver in hospital

Ngozi, a 28-year-old Abakaliki petty trader, says, “My mother-in-law asked me how I was feeling, and I told her I was fine, but I knew I was not. I  was stooling, vomiting, and couldn’t keep my eyes open.” Ngozi was diagnosed with Lassa fever at a hospital in Abakaliki, in the Ebonyi state of southeast Nigeria, after attempting several home remedies. “After two days there, my health deteriorated and I even lost consciousness at some point,” she says.

Lassa fever is a hemorrhagic fever that causes serious damage to various organs, reducing the body’s ability to function. The virus is contagious and can spread from person to person via bodily fluids, including saliva, urine, blood, and vomit. Every year, the illness kills about 5,000 people and affects between 100,000 and 300,000 people in Western Africa. Last year in Nigeria, there were 8,978 suspected cases and 1,227 confirmed cases of Lassa fever (Nigerian Centre for Disease Control).
The city of Abakaliki has seen repeated outbreaks of the disease since 2018, when an MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières) team arrived to help identify people with symptoms and care for patients in Alex-Ekueme Federal Teaching Hospital (AE-FUTHA). Around 600 km further north, a second MSF team has been helping care for patients with Lassa fever in Tafawa Balewa Hospital, Bauchi state, since 2022. Last year, the two MSF teams cared for 618 patients with suspected or confirmed Lassa fever.
Spread By Rats
Lassa fever is spread by a species of rat which is found mainly in three states in eastern and southern Nigeria: Edo, Ondo, and Ebonyi. Rodents that are infected spread the virus through their saliva and feces when they eat food that has been left out. The disease usually peaks in the dry season when rats scavenge for food around people’s houses.
“Transmission of Lassa fever occurs throughout the year, but large seasonal outbreaks occur during the dry season, from December to April, when rats leave the fields to find food from other sources, such as people’s houses,” says Ben Uzoma, MSF health promotion manager.
To help tackle the disease at the source, MSF has launched a ‘vector control strategy’ in local communities in Abakaliki, which includes setting rat traps, using rodenticides, and sharing health information messages on proper waste management, food preparation, and storage.

Diagnostic difficulties
When a person is infected with the virus, they may experience symptoms including a fever, body aches, stomach aches, and vomiting – symptoms very similar to those of malaria, which can make it difficult to identify cases of Lassa fever promptly.
Oluchi, a 26-year-old mother of four, from Ebonyi state, does not know how she contracted the disease, but she recalls when the symptoms started. “I started having a high fever and was vomiting,” she says. “My husband took me to a private hospital, where I was administered malaria medication, but the symptoms only worsened. The doctors could not figure out what was wrong with me, so they referred me to Alex-Ekueme hospital to test for Lassa fever.”
To help detect cases of Lassa fever early, MSF has developed a screening form in collaboration with Alex-Ekueme Hospital, with which healthcare workers can spot suspected cases by recording and analysing patients’ general and major symptoms and matching it with their health history and contact with rodents or an infected person.
Patient care
When a patient with suspected Lassa fever shows up at AE-FUTHA, they are immediately admitted to the MSF-built isolation centre of the hospital. Patients who test positive are immediately moved to the ‘virology unit’ for treatment. This barrier measure is put in place to separate Lassa fever patients from other patients and minimise the risk of infection for healthcare workers and patients’ relatives.
“After my test came out positive, I started receiving treatment,” says Ngozi. “They gave me food, water, and everything I needed. So many doctors and nurses constantly checked on me throughout the day, and after seven days my test results came out negative.”
Emotional support
Contracting Lassa fever can take a toll on one’s emotional and psychological well-being. MSF mental health teams provide counseling and psychosocial support to patients with suspected or confirmed Lassa fever throughout their hospital stay, through individual and group discussions, as well as playing games and doing puzzles.
“My healing was rapid and I received a lot of support from mental health counselors,” says Ngozi. “They were always present during my treatment.”
Oluchi’s experience with Lassa was so harrowing that she thought she was going to die. “I got so scared at the thought of dying – I was terrified,” she says. “But one of the MSF mental health counselors came often to comfort me and told me not to worry.”

Before discharge, patients are provided with information on expected symptoms and potential mental health impacts, so they are well-informed and prepared for life as survivors of Lassa fever. Patients’ families also receive support from the mental health team to help them understand and deal with their relatives’ condition. “At the time, I was short-tempered,” remembers Ngozi. “Thankfully, my family understood why, as the mental health counselor had informed them beforehand.”
Challenges of tackling Lassa fever
Despite MSF’s efforts, challenges remain in tackling outbreaks of the disease in Nigeria. These include a lack of awareness among health workers, a shortage of training and research on Lassa fever, limited resources in comparison to the cost of treatment, and limited access to healthcare facilities. Alex-Ekueme Federal Teaching Hospital is the only treatment centre for Lassa fever in southeast Nigeria, while most hospitals across Western Africa are not fully equipped to handle complex cases.
Meanwhile, for many people with symptoms, seeking medical attention in a hospital remains the last choice. Sick people usually start by consulting medicine sellers or traditional healers, with the result that patients often show up late at the hospital with severe complications. By this stage, their chances of survival may be slim.
Survivors of Lassa fever also often face stigma from their communities due to a widespread lack of knowledge about the disease; some people mistakenly believe that survivors are contagious and that catching the disease is a sign of poor hygiene or a punishment from God.
“When I returned home, I was excluded by my peers,” says Oluchi. “There was a rumour going around that I had been in the mortuary because of how skinny I was. People were running away from me because of the contagious nature of the disease.”
After leaving the hospital and returning to their communities, survivors continue to receive support from MSF’s mental health staff, who do their best to ensure that they are reintegrated back into their communities.
Working with communities
At the same time, MSF health promoters work with communities to counter misinformation and lack of knowledge about Lassa fever. “We let people know that those who have been treated and cured of Lassa fever are no longer contagious,” says Uzoma.
MSF’s health promotion teams target hotspot areas such as markets, schools, and religious centres with health education and community engagement activities during the peak season of the disease. With the help of flyers, leaflets, flip charts, demonstrations, and radio spots, the teams share information on Lassa fever and make sure that people know where they can receive free medical care.
The work of MSF’s health promoters continues year-round.

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HEALTH

Gov. Otti To Collaborate With NAFDAC To Fight Fake Drugs; Pays Tribute To Dora Akunyili’s Memory

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Abia State Governor, Dr. Alex Otti, has paid tribute to the late Professor Dora Akunyili, former Director General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC).

Governor Otti, who said he had a close family relationship with Professor Akunyili and her late husband, Dr. Chike Akunyili, observed a minute of silence for the two when he met with NAFDAC Director General, Professor Mojisola Adeyeye, in Government House, Umuahia, on Tuesday.

According to Kazie Uko, Chief Press Secretary to the Governor, the NAFDAC DG met with Governor Otti during her working visit to Abia State.

The Governor praised Professor Adeyeye for the passion she brought to her work, saying she reminded him of Professor Akunyili.

“When I read about you, talk to you, and see how you have continued to direct the affairs of your office in NAFDAC, I think of Dora, because the same passion you are bringing to this job was the same passion she brought to the job when she did it.

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“I want to thank you for everything you have done and what you are going to do. I would like to thank you for working for our people. I know you have no personal interest. “It is in the public’s interest,” Governor Otti stated.

He promised to work with NAFDAC in the fight against counterfeit drugs and substandard products.

The Governor, who emphasised NAFDAC’s critical role in protecting citizens, praised the Agency’s unwavering commitment to protecting public health and consumer rights from counterfeit and adulterated products.

He did, however, express regret for the loss of lives as a result of counterfeit drugs and substandard products, and vowed that his administration would not give up in its efforts to eliminate harmful products.

The Governor recounted an instance in which NAFDAC’s prompt action in collaboration with the Abia State Government resulted in the closure of a haven for counterfeit products in Aba, emphasising the state’s commitment to ensuring public health and safety.

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“A lot of people die because they consume fake products, medications, and food, so we will not stop until they are completely eradicated,” Governor Otti stated.

He outlined proactive measures taken by the State, such as the formation of a unified task force to combat negative trends and address various offences.

Governor Otti emphasised the state government’s commitment to leveraging the potential of Abia youths for positive purposes, as well as the importance of transitioning from counterfeit to authentic products and promoting local branding initiatives.

“Fake is fake, while original is original. It only takes a little effort to go from fake to original. So, while we are fighting those who make counterfeit products, we have also tried to reorient our employees so that if they can do the fake one, why not migrate and do the original one?

“Our fight is to increase positive energy while completely reducing negative energy. If we are unable to eradicate it, the government will. So, we have taken it upon ourselves to support you in this fight while also supporting ourselves,” Governor Otti stated.

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Earlier in her remarks, Prof. Adeyeye emphasised NAFDAC’s mandate to regulate and control the production, importation, exportation, advertisement, sale, and use of various regulated products, such as drugs, food, chemicals, cosmetics, and packaged water, to ensure consumer safety.

The NAFDAC DG emphasised the importance of working with Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) and the need for coordinated wholesale centres to monitor the distribution of drugs and related products, thereby preventing the spread of counterfeit goods and protecting public health.

She thanked Governor Otti for his express approval for NAFDAC to build a suitable office space in Aba.

At the meeting with the NAFDAC DG and her team were the Commissioner for Health, Dr. Ngozi Okoronkwo; the Commissioner for Digital Economy and SMEs, Matthew Ekwuribe; and some of the Governor’s senior aides.

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HEALTH

Nigerian Government Applauds Governor Otti’s Efforts To Resolve Healthcare Issues In Abia

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The presidential aide being flanked by Gov. Otto and Deputy

The Federal Government has commended Abia State Governor Dr. Alex Otti, for taking proactive steps to address lingering issues in the state’s healthcare system before taking office on May 29, 2023.

Dr. Salman Anas-Ibrahim, Special Adviser to the President on Health, who presented the award, stated that by declaring a state of emergency in the health sector and increasing health allocation in the 2024 Budget by 15%, as well as resolving salary disputes quickly, Governor Otti significantly alleviated challenges in the state’s healthcare system.

According to Kazie Uko, Chief Press Secretary to the Governor, Dr. Anas-Ibrahim spoke on Monday while leading a team from the Presidency to Governor Otti’s residence in Umuehim, Nvosi, Isialangwa South. The team is in Abia for an advocacy visit.

She advocated for collaboration between Abia and the Federal Government to accelerate Health Sector Transformation initiatives outlined in President Bola Tinubu’s Renewed Hope Agenda.

The Special Adviser to the President on Health stated that the Federal Government would assist Abia with the Presidential Acceleration Plan for Reducing Maternal Deaths, as well as other areas such as capacity building, resources, and advocacy.

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In response to the senior presidential aide, Governor Otti thanked her for her visit and stated that Abia State had already aligned with the Federal Government’s Renewed Hope Agenda in the health sector to improve access to quality healthcare in the state.

The Governor emphasised the shared objectives of Abia and the Federal Government, particularly in the area of health, and emphasised a mutual drive towards a common goal despite political differences.

“Thank you for your visit, which we greatly appreciate. We also want to take this opportunity to thank the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, his Excellency, Senator Bola Ahmed Tinubu, GCFR, for sending you on this trip. I would like to thank him very much, and please convey our happiness and gratitude to him when you return.

“I will not take for granted your kind and generous words about our administration in Abia State. We sincerely appreciate you and your interest in the state’s development.

“There are 36 states, as you correctly noted. This is not an APC state, but given everything you have said about the President’s Renewed Hope Agenda, particularly in terms of health, I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that even though we are not in the same party, we are on the same page and working towards the same goal.

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“Without fear of contradiction, I will say that based on everything you have said, we have already focused on this Renewed Hope Agenda; because, according to you, all of the areas that the Federal Government is interested in are also areas we are interested in in Abia,” Governor Otti told his guest.

The Governor, who recounted the deliberate steps taken by his administration upon assumption of office, said his government had addressed critical healthcare challenges in Abia, including; a robust budget for the healthcare delivery system, restoration of accreditation for the Abia State University Teaching Hospital and the College of Medicine of the University, which had been in disrepair during the previous government, as well as clearing salary arrears of the

“When we came in, we were very deliberate about what we were going to do. When we arrived, we discovered that our state’s tertiary health institution, the Abia State University Teaching Hospital, lacked accreditation and had not had it for the previous three years. “So, it was a significant challenge,” he explained.

Governor Otti outlined his government’s ongoing initiatives, which include the retrofitting of General Hospitals and Primary Healthcare Centres throughout the state, as well as the establishment of a Medical Village, which would serve as a comprehensive healthcare hub to reverse medical tourism and provide high-quality medical services within Abia State.

He emphasised the importance of addressing maternal and child mortality rates, stating that his government is committed to improving Abia’s healthcare needs.

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“We are not where we want to be, but we have come a long way since our first meeting with the state. We are currently retrofitting primary health care centres, which number approximately 948 as of our last count.

“Fortunately, we won a price from the Governor’s Forum, which was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; ‘The Leadership Challenge’, and the money from there was first deployed to the Primary Health Care Centres, and of course, we have a robust budget for the healthcare delivery system in Abia state.

“In the last eleven months, we have had to intervene at various levels just to ensure that people have better opportunities to live when they are challenged, and we will continue to push the boundaries in those areas so that we can move our people out of homelessness,” Governor Otti stated.

He affirmed his administration’s willingness to work with the federal government, adding that the state would support any initiative aimed at uplifting citizens and driving socioeconomic development.

The Governor was joined by the Deputy Governor, Engr Ikechukwu Emetu; the Secretary to the State Government, Prof Kenneth Kalu; the Commissioner for Health, Dr. Ngozi Okoronkwo; the Special Adviser to the Governor on Health, Dr. Ngozi Azodoh; and other Senior aides to the Governor and heads of agencies in the Ministry of Health.

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HEALTH

African Public Health Initiative: BGI Genomics Supporting Cervical Cancer Screening For 20,000 Rwandans

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BGI Genomics and the Rwanda Biomedical Centre (RBC) have launched a cervical cancer screening program in Ngoma District, Eastern Province, Rwanda.

This program will provide 20,000 Human papillomavirus (HPV) DNA tests for local women, aiming to enhance cervical cancer screening and prevention efforts and improve local precision medical testing capabilities.

The launching event was attended by Wang Xuekun, Chinese Ambassador to Rwanda; Mr. Pudence Rubingisa, Governor of Eastern Province; Nathalie Niyonagira, the Mayor of Ngoma District, Rwanda; Dr. Albert Tuyishime, Head of Department, (HDPC) HIV/AIDS Diseases Prevention and Control, RBC; Dr. Theoneste Maniragaba, Director of the Cancer Diseases Unit at the RBC; Dr. Du Yutao, Chief Operating Officer of BGI Genomics; and Gao Zhiqiang, Commercial Counsellor of the Chinese Embassy in Rwanda, among others.

Wang Xuekun, Chinese Ambassador to Rwanda, stated: “BGI Genomics is a leading enterprise in the genomic industry, both in China and globally. The company has significantly contributed to promoting the friendship between China and Rwanda and advancing Rwanda’s medical and health industry.”

Mr. Pudence Rubingisa, Governor of Eastern Province, commented, “We deeply appreciate our collaboration with BGI Genomics and other partners. As we initiate this project, we are dedicated to leveraging all available resources, including our local health workers and agencies, to facilitate effective screening, awareness, and educational efforts. This initiative is pivotal for enhancing the well-being of our community.”

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Dr. Albert Tuyishime, Head of the HIV/AIDS Disease Prevention and Control Department at RBC, remarked, “Cervical cancer is a major global challenge, particularly in developing countries with limited treatment options.

Rwanda aims to lead the way in achieving the global cervical cancer elimination goals. We value our collaboration with BGI Genomics, which has enhanced screening services in the Ngoma district, and look forward to extending these services across the country.”

As Rwanda’s public health implementation agency, the RBC is committed to enhancing local public health through scientific research, diagnostic services, and innovative healthcare interventions.

For this initiative, BGI Genomics provides a comprehensive solution comprising laboratory equipment and technology transfer, while all project samples and testing data are handled by Rwanda’s personnel and stored locally under local laws and regulations.

The company will also assist in further upgrading the local closed-loop management system from cervical cancer screening to positive intervention, significantly enhancing Rwanda’s healthcare infrastructure.

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The Chinese medical team assisting Rwanda provides support for the implementation of the cervical cancer screening project, and the team’s leader Zhang Heping also attended the launching ceremony.

Cervical cancer ranks as the second most prevalent cancer among women in Rwanda. According to data from the Rwanda Health Management Information System (HMIS), only 24% of eligible women in Rwanda have undergone cervical cancer screening in the past five years.

According to the WHO guideline for screening and treatment of cervical pre-cancer lesions for cervical cancer prevention, HPV DNA testing, with an accuracy rate of up to 95%, is the first-choice screening method for cervical cancer screening. A self-sampling model is recommended, whereby women collect their test samples, followed by centralized testing.

“In China, HPV DNA testing technology has been applied in many large-scale public health service programs and achieved remarkable results. We hope that cervical cancer screening can leverage BGI Genomics technology and self-sampling model in countries worldwide and help accelerate the goal of eliminating cervical cancer worldwide,” said Dr. Du Yutao, Chief Operating Officer of BGI Genomics.

BGI Genomics self-developed HPV DNA testing products are suitable for large-scale population screening and precise HPV genotyping. A single test can screen for the 14 high-risk HPV types highly correlated with the occurrence of cervical cancer as per WHO guidelines and is validated by large-scale clinical data to be suitable for self-sampling.

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A self-sampling model requires only a few medical staff to facilitate the rapid collection of many samples, which significantly enhances accessibility and effectively enables screening to cover areas with limited medical resources.

Notably, this approach offers considerable advantages in remote regions of developing countries where cold chain logistics are inadequate, as it minimizes the necessity for advanced transportation and storage infrastructure. The ease of use, convenience, and privacy will further enhance screening coverage.

In the future, BGI Genomics plans to deliver advanced genetic testing technologies for reproductive health, tumour screening, and the prevention and control of infectious diseases in Rwanda. This will promote the overall capacity and efficacy of precision medicine and help upgrade the local medical and healthcare systems.

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