Too many Nigerians are still prone to preventable diseases. It’s time to match rhetoric with practical progress

The prevalence of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) in Nigeria remains deeply concerning. Last week, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said the country accounted for 50 per cent of the ailment in Africa – a diverse group of viral, parasitic, and bacterial diseases that afflicts mainly the poor. Health Minister, Osagie Ehanire, while launching the country’s 2023-2027 master plan on NTDs also admitted that Nigeria has a huge global burden of the diseases with millions of persons at risk.   

Neglected tropical diseases are overlooked infectious ailments grouped together due to their often chronic, disfiguring, and stigmatising impact and their close association with poverty and geographic overlap. At least 15 of the WHO-designated 20 NTDs are present in Nigeria, including Trachoma, (granular conjunctivitis), Onchocerciasis, (river blindness), Lymphatic Filariasis, (elephantiasis), Schistosomiasis (parasitic worms), Leprosy, Snakebites yaws, Rabies and Buruli ulcer. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), these diseases have significantly caused illnesses and deaths chiefly among the vulnerable or disadvantaged Nigerians. It has also impacted negatively on families and the society.   

Reports have shown that 20 per cent of those affected or at risk in Nigeria are of pre-school age while 28 per cent of them are between ages five and 14 years. The remaining 52 per cent are from 15 years and above. Some 120 million Nigerians are at risk of filariasis, a disease that affects the lymph nodes and vessels, and 51.4 million by river blindness. These diseases and more, Ehinare has argued, devastate not only the affected persons but also leave their families miserable. This is why we must give these public health concerns adequate attention by addressing them head on.    

The gains made in tackling other known health issues could come to nothing if NTDs are wreaking havocs.  And nations are no longer rated mainly by how deep their financial reserves are, or by great bridges and tall buildings, but also by their human capital development which includes the health of their people.   

Many Nigerians do not know how to prevent themselves from NTDs or how to manage them properly. Stakeholders must make this a priority, especially in rural and hard-to-reach areas where the diseases are prevalent. Although Ehinare said last week the country would soon meet up with the global target of eliminating some of these diseases before the end of 2030, the burden of the diseases is still heavy, and spreading. According to the Akwa Ibom State government, NTDs are endemic in all its local government areas. “Most times, we drive on the streets and see people with swollen leg, or you go to the communities and see people with their swollen scrotum,” claimed Aniekeme Uwah, state coordinator of the NTDs in the health ministry. “We also have some which led to people having rashes on their skin. And these are rashes that you treat continuously but refuse to heal, which also leads to blindness.” Patients of these sicknesses need the necessary attention.   

For a start, all levels of government should include NTDs sensitisation in their programmes, as ignorance has been fingered as the major factor fuelling the rise of the scourge. Just like Malaria and Tuberculosis, governments (both local, state, and federal) should provide significant budgetary allocations for tackling NTDs. Ondo State last week announced the building of NTDs clinic to tackle the menace of the diseases in the state, just as the Lagos State government spoke of plans to assess some NTDs in its local councils as part of efforts at targeted treatment of the diseases in the state. There is need for collaboration to contain the diseases. Thus, the theme of the 2023 NTDs Day, “Act now. Act together. Invest in Neglected Tropical Diseases” could not have been more apt.   

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