Home Opinion Special Reports Death Toll in Diphtheria Outbreak in Nigeria Reaches 600 and rising

Death Toll in Diphtheria Outbreak in Nigeria Reaches 600 and rising

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by Olatunji Saliu

In the crowded neighborhoods of Kano in Nigeria’s northwest region, diphtheria has become a silent but deadly intruder gripping local communities in fear and anguish.

Once thought to be under control, diphtheria, a serious bacterial infection that affects a person’s nose, throat, and, sometimes, skin, is resurging in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country.

The battle against diphtheria has taken a harrowing turn in Kano, the most populous state in Nigeria and the epicenter of the outbreak, as the infectious specter continues to find a stronghold in its bustling neighborhoods.

Out of over 8,400 cases of diphtheria confirmed so far in the country, according to the Nigeria Center for Disease Control (NCDC), Kano alone has recorded at least 7,188, accounting for 86 percent of the total number of cases.

At least 19 Nigerian states out of the 36, including the Federal Capital Territory, are battling the disease that has proven its lethality time and again. The hardest-hit states are all located in the northern part of the country, including Yobe, Katsina, Borno, Jigawa, and Kaduna.

In October, the NCDC said more than 600 people, mainly children, had been killed since the onset of diphtheria in December 2022, far surpassing the country’s last major outbreak in 2011, which reported only 98 cases and 21 deaths.

Many of the affected children in the current outbreak were unvaccinated, Faisal Shuaib, a public health expert and former head of the National Primary Health Care Development Agency, told the media during a recent tour of a diphtheria isolation center in Kano.

“Witnessing the young children suffering from this entirely preventable disease was profoundly heart-wrenching,” Shuaib said.

To combat the disease, states affected by diphtheria would need to commence extensive education campaigns to tackle vaccine hesitancy — fueled by myths, misconceptions, and mistrust — that has become a significant obstacle in achieving widespread immunization coverage in some parts of Nigeria, especially in the northern states of the country, NCDC head Ifedayo Adetifa told a recent press conference.

“Efforts are underway to debunk myths and misconceptions surrounding vaccines and address these issues head-on through the national infodemic management team,” Adetifa said.

Adetifa said campaigns by affected states should be aimed at providing accurate information about vaccines, their benefits, and the rigorous testing and safety protocols they undergo, to help individuals make informed decisions based on scientific evidence rather than misinformation.

In its report on the outbreak in September, the World Health Organization said only 57 percent of Nigeria’s population had received the pentavalent vaccine, which protects a child against diphtheria and four other life-threatening diseases. It urged Nigeria to increase vaccination coverage to at least 80 percent, to ensure community protection and avert future outbreaks in the country.

“The control of diphtheria is based on primary prevention of disease by ensuring high population immunity through vaccination, and secondary prevention of spread by the rapid investigation of close contacts to ensure prompt treatment of those infected,” the WHO said.

As international concerns mount on the unfolding public health crisis in Nigeria, local authorities have launched measures to contain the outbreak, deploying medical teams and resources to the most affected areas.

Hauwa Hassan, a public health expert, told Xinhua that the struggle against diphtheria serves as a stark reminder of the fragility of public health systems and the urgency for international cooperation.

“The global health community needs to rally to support the country’s efforts, recognizing the need for a united front against this relentless foe. It is important for aid organizations to mobilize to assist, from medical supplies to expertise, in the hopes of turning the tide in favor of the afflicted,” she said.

“The battle is far from over, and the toll on human lives would continue to rise,” Hassan added.

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