●Weeks after losing 70 children to deadly scourge, Lagos rural town still grieves
By Doris Obinna
Remember the shanty town called Maroko, located east of Victoria Island, Lagos, before its demolition? Otodo-Gbame community is a replica of the old Maroko. Recently, the sleepy community witnessed an outbreak of a disease believed to have claimed the lives of no fewer than 70 children. The victims were said to have died from the Febrile Rash Illness (FRI).
Otodo-Gbame, also called Ikate waterside or Ikate Elegushi, is in Eti-Osa Local Government Area of Lagos State. It is an expansive, sandy, flood-prone settlement with an estimated population of 100,000 residents. The settlers are mainly of Egun ancestry, even though there are other tribes living among them. As a slum, its residents openly deposit their solid and soluble waste at every spot. The community also has many shallow wells.
At the moment, Otodo-Gbame residents are seething with rage, blaming the Lagos State government for their plight. They allege that the state government has neglected them and cares less about their plight. They recalled that during the last governorship election, they came out massively to support the All Progressives Congress (APC) candidate, Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode, who is now governor. But they are unhappy that they are yet to earn the real dividend of democracy.
For the children living in this community, having decent playgrounds remains a huge luxury. They make do with the numerous muddy ponds in the area, swimming and playing in and around them with their usual childish enthusiasm. But the ponds are replete with all manner of waste and vectors.
When the reporter visited the community on a recent Saturday morning, she found it difficult to navigate her way around. First, she was asked to take off her shoes and roll up her trousers because according to her guide, Mr. Femi, the party had to brace up for a long waddle through the muddy terrains. That was what the reporter learnt every resident of the community does all day, for the area is covered with floodwater almost all the year.
And so, for anyone to move around in Otodo-Gbame, they have to sail, paddling in a wooden boat. Many of the residents live deep in the waters. And for the first timer, being paddled around a community in a canoe could be as strange as fiction. But indeed, most of the families, who lost two to three children to the deadly Febrile Rash Illness have their homes deep in the waters.
And so, for 45 minutes, the reporter, Mr. Luccien Hounukon and Mr. Femi kept sailing leisurely on the waters, hunting for the families that had lost their innocent infants and toddlers to the deadly scourge. When success was made, the next challenge was getting them to talk about their journey into misery. For them, they had gone through one form of devastating trauma or another that they might not wish even their avowed enemy.
One of the victims, who was still sulking at the time of the visit, was Mr. Michael Agodoo. After losing a year-old daughter and his wife who died because she could not bear the death of her daughter, Mr. Agodoo was deeply immersed in a lake of sorrow. He managed to recall that the chain of misfortune was a sad one for the family.
“The sickness took us by surprise,” he opened up in a tone laden with anguish. “Before we knew what was happening, my wife and I took her to the community clinic where she eventually died. We were traumatised because, before the sickness, she was such a healthy, little baby. But her death devastated us, and as a result of the shock, my wife also died few weeks after my daughter’s death.”
Having said that much, he breathed down heavily, as if to breathe away the sorrow and anguish choking his throat. Then he allowed for a pause during which a cloud of pain enveloped him. Then he continued: “As if that was not enough, my younger brother, Wambo Christian, also lost his two daughters to the same sickness. They were aged two and three years, respectively. In fact, it was a sad story for all of us in this community, as there was no home that did not lose a young child during the period.”
Another victim, Susan Wusu, also lost her only child, who was 15 months. Up till now, the sad memory has refused to go away. As a young mother, she said watching her little baby, dying as she battled with the strange sickness was not easy at all. She refused to comment any further, saying her concern was for God to hear her prayers and bless her with more children.
But the worst hit of them all was Mr. Peter Kpose. He lost three of his five children. He said he was left with two after his twins Taye and Keyinde and their brother, Justine, died of the strange sickness.
“I lost three children in three weeks,” he said, solemnly. “Each of them died one week apart. At the community clinic where we took them all, we discovered that there were also other parents, complaining of similar ailment that was affecting their children. Unfortunately, most of the children, including mine, died from the sickness.”
Going through the list made available by the local physician, Mr. Luccien Hounkon, one other family hard hit by the epidemic was that of Mr. and Mrs. Haribee. They lost three children in a row.
Hounkon said: “I am a member of the Association of Traditional Medicine Practitioners, Lagos State. I am a trained traditional doctor but also practise orthodox medicine. I tried treating the victims because all of them that were brought here had rashes all over their bodies. They were vomiting and coughing while some were passing very loose, bloody stool.”
He claimed that while some of the victims were taken to the community clinic, about 31 children, who were brought to his own clinic died, as there was inadequate medical support and government health centre where the children could have been taken care of.
Chairman of the community, Hon. Hennu Solomon Akangelu, alleged that the failure of the state government to immunise children in the area against the deadly measles might have caused the calamity, regretting that the epidemic caught everyone unawares. He also alleged that the degradation of the aquatic environment was contributory to the outbreak.
Akangelu said: “There have been massive dredging activities being carried out by some companies operating here. Their activities pollute our water. The water here is being poisoned. It is now a breeding ground for diseases.
“Before the outbreak, the community had given a building to the government to start a health centre so that the people could benefit from quality healthcare services. But so far, the initiative has not taken off. It is only health workers that come here three times a week to give immunisation.
“At the moment, we don’t have potable water to drink. The water we presently enjoy is courtesy of the effort of the community and the concern shown by Mount Zion Mission, a non-governmental organisation (NGO). It is through this collaboration that the community is getting some supply of drinking water, at least, every Saturday. Of course, this still does not go round; so we need the government to come to our aid,” he said.
But in its reaction, the state government, through the Lagos State Commissioner for Health, Dr. Jide Idris, informed that the epidemic outbreak was as a result of poor sanitary condition in the community.
The government noted that when the state Ministry of Health was notified of the outbreak, it swiftly reacted by taking samples of throat swabs from the patients and water from the community to the Virology Reference Laboratory at Lagos University Teaching Hospital and Lagos State Drug Quality Control Laboratory (DQCL), Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, for investigation.
According to the ministry, the results of laboratory investigation confirmed the measles virus as the cause of the epidemic. All the five blood samples taken to the Central Public Health Laboratory, tested positive to Immunoglobin M (IgM), a basic antibody that is produced by B cells. The commissioner also said that four throat swabs and one blood sample taken indicated the presence of measles virus through Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) technique.
Speaking on the development in the community, Dr. Idris said intensive awareness creation, community mobilisation and health education were embarked upon, recalling that the government and the community were still having meetings and community dialogue. He said the community was being sensitised on immunisation against child-killer diseases, personal and environmental hygiene and the need to boil their water before drinking, among other things. He noted that so far, a total of 587 eligible children had been immunised with the measles vaccine administered with vitamin A.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), measles, also known as morbilli, rubeola or red measles, is one of the leading causes of deaths among young children. It is still common in many developing countries, particularly in Africa and Asia. The overwhelming majority (more than 95 per cent) of measles deaths occur in countries with low per capita incomes and weak health infrastructure.
Before now, WHO had foreseen and warned that there was going to be an outbreak of measles and suggested that countries should carry out immunisation of children.
Experts note that every unvaccinated young child is at the highest risk of measles and its complications, including death. Unvaccinated pregnant women too are at risk. Non-vaccinated persons or those who were vaccinated but did not develop immunity could become infected. According to experts, “the infection usually clears between seven and 10 days. The initial symptoms of measles develop around 10 days after one is infected.”
Head of Department, Paediatrics and Child Health, Lagos State University Teaching Hospital (LASUTH), Dr B. A. Animasahun, said measles is a viral illness that affects both children and adults. However, it is not so common in adults. She said it can affect immuno-compromised adults, like those on immuno drugs, chemotherapy, pregnant women and those with Human Immuno Deficiency Virus (HIV/AIDS).
“Adults who are unsure whether they have had measles or been vaccinated, particularly if they are carriers or work with children, can have the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine on the National Health Service (NHS) from their General Practitioner (GP),” she advised.
She spoke more: “Measles is a fatal disease. Yes, it can be very fatal especially in those who are not immunised; those who are immunised have some level of protection. So even when they have it, sometimes it is usually not too serious. It is not really the measles itself that kills, but the complication that develops as a result of the measles. For example, if it is a viral illness, at the end of the day, it affects the entire body system. It can have one complication or the other in any of the organs affected.
“A minimum of two vaccination dosage is recommended according to Nigerian timetable. The first is given at about the age of nine months while the second could come one month after the first, with the combination of mumps and rubella virus around 15 to 18 months of age. That has to come before the child attains school age. As long as the vaccination is potent enough, it will sustain and protect the child. Vaccination has had at least up to 85 percent potency. At least this has been documented.
“The most common signs and symptoms of the measles are high fever, eye discharge, running nose and sometimes cough and stooling of blood. It takes up to three weeks before the infected person will begin to show the features.
“There are three stages. The first is the incubation period; the second, the exanthematous stage is when the rashes are yet to appear. This lasts for three to five days with signs of running nose, high fever, eye discharge and the feeling that one isn’t well. Cough may follow. The third stage is when the rashes appear. To most people, this is when they suspect measles, though it takes a while.
“Immediately these signs are noticed, a mother should present the child to the health centre before its gets to the stages where the child starts convulsing. She should as much as possible avoid self medication because often, this causes more havoc.
“Early presentation has also helped in managing measles. Besides, administration of vitamin A is important and has been found to reduce the mortality rate to 50 per cent and has so far been proven to be potent in treating measles. Above all, immunisation is the key to preventing and eradicating the disease.”