In the almost 11 months of the advent of this disease in China, and more than eight months of this pandemic worldwide, Nigeria has officially recorded, as at August 10, 2020: 319,850 samples (persons) tested; 46,867 infections; 950 deaths; and 33,346 discharged patients. By all accounts, this is an impressive picture in its lowly numbers, judging from occurrences elsewhere.
A detailed examination of these figures shows that the infection rate is about 14.65 per cent, death rate is about 2.02 per cent, cases per million in population is about 228, and deaths per million in population is about 4.6. With these figures, Nigeria could be said to be doing quite well in combating and containing the spread of the SARS-C0V-2, compared to Europe and the Americas.
The western world most likely will pooh-pooh our statistics as being incomplete or unreliable or for the fact that more people may be sick and dying without any records, if they were neither admitted nor quarantined. However this may be the case, it is also true of every nation as some cases could slip detection until death occurs. But one thing is certain though, and that is the fact that our hospitals and isolation centres have not been overwhelmed with sick patients. The intensive care units in these hospitals and isolation wards are sparsely populated, relatively speaking, and, most importantly, our communities have changed little or not at all in terms of infections, hospitalisations and deaths. In other words, even if we are under-testing, hospitalisation of the sick has not grown astronomically, and we do not have an overwhelming amount of people dying of any disease for that matter.
Do not get me wrong, please. One death is bad enough but, given what is going on in Europe and the Americas, and the severe lack of comprehensive healthcare in Nigeria, most of the world expected Nigerians to be dropping like flies from the onslaught of COVID-19. Why are Nigerians so resilient? Why have we been spared, as it were, by this agent of death? We have by no means flattened the curve but, truth be told, we have plateaued at less than 1,000 infected cases per day. This news is good, even though we would all prefer to have zero cases per day just like we achieved with the Ebola containment. So, what is the secret to our low rate of infections and death from COVID-19?
I am of the opinion that, even in the face of daunting challenges, Nigerian public health officials and leaders must be doing something right with the management of the pandemic. Early on in the pandemic, the authorities, following the advice of experts, instituted a lockdown of the country in a gradual but fairly enforced manner. Given our previous experience with Ebola, it was not too difficult to get the public to comply with the six to 10 weeks of lockdown and over 12 weeks ban on interstate travel. Most effective was the ban on public events and crowd congregations of all types, limited hotel patronage, closure of schools, restaurants, bars, and phased market operations. All these were combined with frequent decontamination and sanitization of markets, hospitals and offices.
Of greater challenge was the management of infected persons in a pandemic where a therapeutic drug does not exist. But here again, our doctors and nurses excelled with the use combination of drugs that have proven to have some level of efficacy in the treatment of similar viruses either in real life or in research. For years, Nigerian doctors have prescribed chloroquine for the treatment of malaria, a tropical disease caused by a parasite of the genus plasmodium transmitted through mosquito bites. There is no known immunity against malaria, and as long as one is exposed to mosquito bites, one can get malaria disease every 10 days, the period of incubation of the parasite in the body before the onset of symptoms.
Prior to this pandemic, virologists and microbiologists from Nigeria and elsewhere have carried out researches on the antiviral efficacy of chloroquine in treating infections from human coronaviruses known to cause the common cold. Chloroquine has also shown limited anti-viral properties against SARS-CoV-1 that is responsible for severe acute respiratory syndrome that broke out in Asia many years ago. COVID-19 is caused by SARS-CoV-2, a more infectious cousin of SARS-CoV-1. So, in the absence of any known therapy, doctors have resorted to the use of chloroquine, in combination with other drugs that can inhibit feverish conditions, decrease inflammation, and promote immunity within the body, to manage COVID-19 patients. And this seems to be working.
What seems to be obvious, though not yet proven, is that Nigerians whose primary illness is malaria have been so infused with chloroquine in their lifetimes that it appears this novel coronavirus runs into a brick wall on infecting any Nigerian. This brick wall of chloroquine-saturated tissues perhaps renders the coronavirus largely impotent, making it easier to deal with the infection in no time. Just look at the recovery ratio of 72 per cent or, from the mortality point of view, nearly 98 per cent survival rate. Moreover, it is also probable that by the time the coronavirus is transmitted from one Nigerian to another, the virus is already so drunk in chloroquine that it is only a shadow of itself, with diluted powers to do very little harm in its new host.
But of greater interests is the proportion of Nigerians who are not sick. They may be infected but asymptomatic, or cured without presenting themselves to hospitals, or have succeeded in warding off the infection in the first place. We are a nation that believes strongly in herbal medicine. I know people in my community and even in the cities who started a regimen of having sauna baths with our local agbo from the get-go of this pandemic. They do this twice a day and drink its herbal hot syrup daily with their families. Believe me, this works very well in treating malaria in three to five days. I had used it as a child and young man growing up in my village. Agbo is a mixture of Neem tree leaves, lemongrass leaves, guava and plantain leaves with some other herbs and roots thrown in for good measure, boiled together in a big pot with plenty of water. After boiling, you sit naked astride the pot, cover yourself with a blanket, and breathe in the steam from the pot, which is also infused into you through the skin. After this, you take a bath with water from the pot too, mixed with cold water to a tepid temperature.
And this is no voodoo science either. The Neem tree (with the scientific name of Azadirachta indica) has well known medicinal properties, including antimalarial, antiviral, antibacterial and immunostimulant properties and activities. Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus), is also known to have anti-fever, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and antimicrobial properties. Therefore, a concoction of these with other herbs and roots has been known to yield potent locally formulated antimalarial admixture. And just like chloroquine, the mix might be working against COVID-19 in similar manner. Additionally, there is also the factor of self-medication by Nigerians who have more or less become ‘adept’ in the safe treatment of malaria.
Another factor is the Nigerian cuisine, which is an important element of our daily lives. Our foods are nourishing, well cooked, with lots of vegetables and plant seeds, rich in proteins and spices all devoid of extraneous chemicals. A typical Nigerian pot of soup or stew is a fine work of many ingredients artfully blended into the most healthy, organic, and nutritious edible potpourri. As was published on page 22 of The Guardian newspaper of August 13, 2020, researchers from the Department of Biochemistry, Faculty of Basic Medical Sciences, College of Medicine, University of Ibadan, University of Lagos, and Federal University of Technology, Akure, Ondo State, in a study titled “Frugal Chemoprophylaxis Against COVID-19: Possible Preventive Benefits for the Populace” and published in the International Journal of Advanced Research in Biological Sciences stated the benefits of some medicinal foods such as ginger, garlic, onions, bitter kola, alligator pepper, black seed, turmeric, bitter leaf, zinc and vitamin C in warding off COVID-19. These plants and elements possess potent pharmacological properties which include anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antipyretic properties, and inhibition of viral replication properties against the symptoms displayed by SARS-CoV-2 infection. In other words, these frugal medicinal foods offer great chemo-prophylaxis benefits that can enhance and boost the bod’s defenses and immunity needed to fight and curtail the spread of COVID-19 in the community. Our foods have come to our aid!
It appears probable that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 has met its match in Nigerians. This is not to say that we should be complacent and drop our guards. We must continue to listen to and do what the experts advise. Whatever luck we are riding on presently is no substitute for ways to control or end the pandemic. Rather, these potential remedies are pointing us in the directions to focus our searches. Our scientists are hard at work researching vaccines and therapeutic drugs against this deadly disease that is also destroying our fragile economy. The whole world must not rest until both are discovered so that life can return to normal.