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Nigeria is facing challenges in controlling the most severe diphtheria epidemic recorded in its history.
Africa Science & Health

in History Nigeria is facing challenges in controlling the most severe diphtheria epidemic recorded in its history.

In Kano, northern Nigeria, a clinic is treating many patients affected by a severe diphtheria outbreak. Among them is a 10-year-old girl who is being cared for by three nurses. Sadly, the outbreak has already claimed the lives of hundreds of people this year.

The girl is confined within a glass enclosure due to a serious contagious illness.

Usman Hassan, the medic in charge of the clinic at the largest hospital in Kano, informed AFP that we need to transfer her to the intensive care unit. He had a mask covering his face.

Nigeria is currently facing challenges in managing the spread of a virus that has resulted in approximately 800 fatalities and 14,000 cases. The outbreak has affected almost half of the 36 states in the country, with Kano having the highest number of cases and deaths.

The Murtala Muhammad Specialist Hospital operates as one of two healthcare centers under the management of the French humanitarian organization MSF in Kano, which is currently the main location of the outbreak.

“According to Dr. Hashim Juma Omar, who is overseeing MSF’s efforts to combat diphtheria in Kano, as of Thursday there have been 10,700 reported cases and over 500 deaths.”

Access to the clinic with a capacity of 90 beds is closely monitored in order to contain the spread of the infection.

Omar stated that the two diphtheria treatment centers are currently receiving over 700 individuals who are believed to have diphtheria and admitting around 280 patients on a weekly basis.

The Center for Disease Control in Nigeria announced a diphtheria outbreak in January following the emergence of cases in May of the previous year.

Last month, a spokesperson from MSF stated that the current outbreak has exceeded the previous worst outbreak in 1989, which had a total of 5,039 cases.

Diphtheria is a bacterial infection that is very contagious and can be life-threatening. It impacts both the respiratory system and the skin.

If left untreated, it has the potential to cause death in 50% of those who contract it and remains lethal in 5% of patients even with treatment.

According to Omar, the most at-risk individuals in Kano state are women and children under the age of five, and they are currently the ones experiencing the most impact.

Vaccine shortages

The international organization MSF has expressed concern over a lack of funding for vaccines, which is hindering efforts to stop the outbreak. They are calling on the international community to provide assistance.

The medical organization has provided a total of 7,000 vaccines for diphtheria in Kano, and last month, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) donated 1.2 million doses to the state.

The organization MSF is currently operating clinics for diphtheria in the northeastern states of Borno and Bauchi. However, they have stated that these efforts are not meeting the needs adequately.

According to Hussein Ismail, project coordinator for MSF in Kano, there is a lack of diphtheria vaccines worldwide. The issue stems from reduced production capacity at the production level.

He stated that it requires 15 days to manufacture one vial of the vaccine and there is a high demand for it worldwide.

According to Omar, meeting the vaccine demand for at-risk groups in Kano, which totals 31 million doses, is a challenging goal because of limitations in supply and funding.

While the number of cases is decreasing and the outbreak is considered to be “under control,” Omar is worried about the potential difficulties during the harmattan season when respiratory tract infections tend to rise.

Decline in immunization

Immunization rates in Nigeria have significantly decreased due to the COVID pandemic. This is due to the global effort to control the spread of the virus, which resulted in governments allocating a majority of their health budget towards addressing it.

The health commissioner of Kano, Abubakar Labaran Yusuf, stated that the state was responsible for 80% of diphtheria cases in Nigeria due to a lack of routine immunisation for 19 months.

Yusuf attributed the current increase in Kano to the previous state government’s failure to continue vaccinations before leaving office in May.

According to data from MSF, the decrease in immunization resulted in 25 million Nigerian children not receiving vaccinations for life-threatening illnesses in just 2021.

Vaccine suspicion

Two mothers reported last week that their children experienced kidney problems following diphtheria vaccinations, reigniting concerns about vaccine safety in the area.

The local radio station broadcasted the allegations made by the mothers, which quickly spread and were shared online with accompanying audio.

“These two claims have thrown a spanner into the works as many people are now skeptical of the diphtheria vaccine and we have to scale up public sensitization,” said Salma Ali-Suwaid, Kano heath official in charge of diphtheria control.

The memory of past controversies, like the passing of 11 Nigerian children in Kano in 1996 following the use of an unapproved meningitis vaccine by American pharmaceutical company Pfizer, remains present.

For 13 months in 2003 and 2004, the government stopped administering polio vaccinations due to allegations that the vaccine contained ingredients that could cause infertility in girls. These claims were tied to a conspiracy theory that Western countries were trying to decrease the population in Africa.

Kano’s suspension resulted in it becoming the main source of transmission to previously polio-free regions around the world.

Even though officials have restarted administering polio vaccines, doubts about their safety remain.

Omar from MSF stated that the state government should increase their efforts in promoting health initiatives to address the reluctance in getting vaccinated among the community, which some link to family planning.