Felix Ikem, Nsukka
For the people of Ette-Uno and Umuopu autonomous communities of Igbo-Eze North Local Government Area of Enugu State, it has been a harvest of deaths.
In the last two months, an unknown disease has been on the loose in the communities, killing people between the ages of 15 and 40 years on a daily basis.
Mr. Vincent Oshomi, Disease Surveillance and Notification Officer in the local government area, who spoke with our reporter, said that over 70 deaths have been recorded in relation to the strange disease.
He said: “Currently, we are looking out for cholera, meningitis, Lassa fever and yellow fever as the possible cause. But we have to wait for the outcome of the tests to be sure on what we are dealing with.
“The disease and deaths was first recorded at Ette at the beginning of September, before it spread to Umuopu, an adjoining community.”
He further explained that the victims presented symptoms such as convulsion, diarrhoea, high fever and vomiting of blood.
Ette-Uno shares boundary with Kogi State. They speak Igala, a Kogi State local dialect, as their native language.
As at last Saturday, over 70 persons have been reported dead in a most strange manner in the two communities with many others in critical condition, which has thrown the communities, neighbouring communities and the local government into fear and confusion.
The reporter made a three-hour journey to the communities, about 15 kilometres away from Ogurute, the Igbo-Eze North Local Government headquarters.
In Ette, the situation was pitiful, as zero infrastructure development in the community has made matters even worse than expected.
A villager who pleaded anonymity told the reporter that the only health centre in the community, which he said was made possible through community efforts, was not functioning and has been overgrown by weeds, which most of the time forces them to treat the sick at home.
Genesis of the unknown disease
Mr. Titus Onuche, the president-general of Ette-Uno autonomous community, said: “Our community started experiencing unusual deaths as from the first week of September when a healthy looking girl of about 20 years died mysteriously three days after she showed signs of illness. Everybody in the community was confused about her death. Her mother fell sick immediately and died exactly three days after the daughter died. From that moment the community started recording strange deaths almost daily, and the report now is three, four deaths every day, with new cases of illness also increasing daily. To be exact, we lost 37 persons under one month and, as at now, we have lost over 50 in my community alone.”
Titus, who is a public health officer in charge of tuberculosis at Ogurute General Hospital, Igbo-Eze North LGA, equally said that the local government authorities and the department of Disease Surveillance and Notification have been officially informed.
“After we notified the Igbo-Eze North Local Government chairman and the Disease Surveillance and Notification officer of the local government, they swung into action immediately. They contacted Enugu State Ministry of Health, who sent medical and health workers to our community. They collected samples of the affected persons for proper diagnosis and treatment.
“Currently our community is in disarray. We share boundary with Kogi State, but our major problem is that we don’t have a health centre or hospital. The one we have, which was built by the communities, is not functioning. In fact, the place has been overgrown by weeds and taken over by snakes and other dangerous reptiles. The community virtually has nothing in terms of social amenities and infrastructural development.
“There are no good access roads, no electricity, no pipe-borne water, nothing. We don’t even know where what is happening to the community is coming from. Those people that died before we could take them to hospital, which is far from our community, they died on the way,” he lamented.
Symptoms of an unknown disease
Titus also explained how the disease has been harvesting souls: “Most of those affected with the disease will first come down with high fever, after which they will complain of strong headache. Then in a short time they will start passing out frequent stools that is mixed with blood. And the last stage of the symptoms they always present before they die is that they will start vomiting blood through their mouth and nose.
“Ninety-nine per cent of the people that died within this period of time presented similar symptoms. Once a person is reported sick, from three to seven days, the person will die. Eighty-five per cent of them always die three days after they fall sick.”
Daily Sun gathered that when the strange deaths started occurring in the community, the natives were pointing the accusing finger to a deity and some elders in the community who they alleged brought the deity to the community to check people’s evil activities and gang up against the progress and development of the community.
Another side of the story said some youths in the community allegedly went to another community’s deity and took an oath, which boomeranged and resulted in deaths.
When the reporter confronted Titus, the PG, with the allegations, he confirmed that he equally heard the same stories.
“In fact, that was why it took the community up to one month to report this matter to the government. You can’t control everything. Everybody has his or her own rights to think anything and believe in anything. But I know that the stories are unfounded. Some of the people who died and who are still down with sickness are children and women, even though many of them are youths. But with the symptoms they present, I am suspecting an infectious disease.
“As a health officer, I never believed what that were saying because the disease has gone across to our neighbouring community and they have already counted many deaths under three weeks.
“Initially, people started believing that a deity was behind the strange deaths in the community. As people were dying, rumours were flying up and down. Suggestions and counter-suggestions became the order of the day in the community. But one month after, people keep on dying and the number keeps on increasing day by day so that we had to report to the local government authorities,” he said.
Unknown disease spreads
As people of Etta-Unu were consulting the oracles, thinking that the strange deaths were caused by some angry gods, the disease was spreading in the neighbouring community, Umuopu, like a wildfire, killing people daily, up to the time of this report.
When the reporter visited Umuopu community, their traditional ruler, Igwe Cyril Anyogu, said it was devastating watching his subjects die helplessly: “It has been pain and sorrow in my community for the past three weeks. The most devastating part of it is watching my people die on daily basis without knowing the type of disease that is killing them and without having a cure for it.
“This disease was first reported in Ette-Uno, our neighbour community. How it has spread into my own community beats my imagination. The more confusing part of it is that infected persons complained the same symptoms with the cases in Ette-Uno before they died.”
The Igwe, while calling on his people to remain calm and prayerful, said he was eagerly awaiting the results of samples collected from infected persons by the government and a cure for the disease.
He thanked the Enugu State government and the Igbo-Eze North LGA for their prompt response and intervention, even as he called on the Federal Government to join forces with the state and salvage the situation.
Also, the Town Union president of Umuopu, Mr. Fidelis Mammah, confirmed that the disease started about three weeks ago in the community after it was first reported n Ette-Uno.
His words: “So far, over 30 persons have died in our community, with about five down and critical ill with the disease. The ugly thing in this situation is that nobody knows the name of the disease and no cure has been found yet. And out of all those affected, nobody has been reported to have recovered from the disease.”
The councillor representing Umuozzi Ward 1, Ekene Itodo, said the sudden deaths that have claimed people in his community is an outbreak of a yet-to-be-identified disease, which had been reported to the government. He said the people were waiting for the outcome of test results from samples collected from infected persons.
He said the allegation that a deity was brought to the community to checkmate the evil activities of some community members was unverifiable: “Even though the disease has claimed the lives of more youths, most of them are of noble character and well behaved in the community. Again, some of those that died have children and mothers, and we know they did not in any way soil their hands in the community.”
Relatives of victims narrate experience
Mr. David Ocheme, from Ette-Uno, said his sister, Comfort, a mother of two, died of the strange disease days after she complained that she was feeling feverish.
He told the reporter: “My sister complained that she was having a fever. We thought it was malaria, and we gave her some drugs to take. But, minute-by-minute, her health continued to deteriorate. We took her to a private hospital in our community, where she was admitted. But, two days later, she died after vomiting blood,” he said.
Abu Matthew, from Ette-Uno, said he lost his 27-year-old in-law to the unknown disease five days after he complained about severe headache and body pains.
Said he: “My sister’s husband complained that he had a headache and body pains. We took him to a private hospital in our community. Already, the community had been enveloped with the fear that, once you fall sick, next thing is death. At the hospital, there was no particular thing he was diagnosed of. The hospital tried all they could do to keep him alive but, five days after, he gave up the ghost, with blood gushing out of his mouth and nose.”
To Mrs. Agnes Itodo, from Umuopu community, the world was collapsing in the two communities.
“I know that people can die at any point in time, but several people dying in one community in a day is strange and unusual. I have never witnessed this type of situation since I was born. It’s like the world has collapsed on our communities. The question that is agitating the mind of everyone now is, who will be the next to die,” she wondered.
The chief priest of Umuopu community, Augustine Olijo, said that the strange death has thrown everybody in the community into confusion. He said that his initial traditional inquiries revealed that some of those death came as a result of natural cause while some were because of the evil they committed against the land.
Ola-oha Ali Nwa Itodo, the eldest man in Umuopu, said: “I am saddened watching my children die on a daily basis without knowing the cause of their death. I have sent out a team of elders to go and consult the gods and find out where the aggression is coming from because what is happening is not ordinary. It has never happened before. We have to look inward for a solution,” he said.
Government seeks answers
Following the report of the outbreak to the state government, Enugu State Commissioner for Health, Dr. Ilechukwu Obi, in a statement last Thursday. said the ministry had collected samples from patients and sent to the National Reference Laboratory for investigation.
He also said that the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) had been informed about the development and was collaborating with the state ministry of health and the local government to investigate and control the incident.
“Rapid response team of the ministry visited Igbo-Eze North LGA and met with the LGA rapid respond team. On-the-spot-check and outbreak investigations have revealed a number of deaths with symptoms suggestive of a disease of public health importance,” he said.
He said the ministry was on top of the situation and would continue to keep the public abreast with information on the source of the disease and deaths.
Also, Ejike Itodo, the council chairman of Igbo-Eze North LGA, who confirmed the outbreak, said efforts were in top gear to unravel the mystery behind the unusual deaths; an emergency stakeholders and community leaders meeting was held, where the outbreak was discussed, and directives have been given to all the traditional rulers, town union presidents and ward councillors to sensitise their people to immediately report any incident to the health officers.
Meanwhile, the Enugu State government has confirmed that yellow fever is the cause of deaths from the reported strange illness in the two communities.
A statement by the Commissioner for Health, Dr. Obi, at the weekend, said the disease was confirmed through verifiable diagnostic tests.
Obi said: “Yellow fever is not a new disease but one of public health importance internationally and in Nigeria. A suspected case is anyone with a sudden onset of fever who develops jaundice (yellowness of the eyes) within 14 days. it is verifiable by diagnostic tests. The Enugu State Ministry of Health has called for an immediate emergency operations centre, with representatives from the NCDC and other implementing partners in the state to articulate specific next steps to effectively respond to and control this disease in the local government and prevent its spread in Enugu State.
“We are collaborating with the Federal Ministry of Health and with nearby states to prevent its spread within Nigeria. The General Hospital, Enugu Ezike, and other hospitals in the state are prepared to provide the supportive treatment needed for yellow fever.
“This is a time to continue in earnest the hygienic practices that we have become used to due to the COVID -19 pandemic, while now improving our environmental hygiene practices: keep our surroundings clean and free of overgrown bushes, ensuring that we do not allow containers and gutters around us to collect water for long periods, which allows mosquitoes to breed. We should protect our homes by screening doors and windows with nets, and ourselves by sleeping under mosquito nets and wearing clothes that limit mosquito bites.
“Most of all, if you recognise the above symptoms in yourself or a loved one, please, visit the nearest hospital.”