It was supposed to be an internal memo from University of Abuja Teaching Hospital’s Public Relations Unit, dated August 12. In these days when every document public or private leaks like a sieve, it soon found its way into the social media. It said the hospital’s management wanted to inform all Heads of Department “of an outbreak of Marburg disease and upsurge in COVID 19 infection.” It told them to “ensure adequate surveillance and hygiene by observing all protocols of prevention.”
A day earlier, there was this story on the wires of the World Health Organisation [WHO] saying a group of global experts had agreed on new names for monkey pox virus variants, the latest international public health scare just before Marburg. The names, WHO said, were “part of ongoing efforts to align the names of monkey pox disease, virus and variants or clades with current best practices.” New names to monkey pox variants were given in order to “avoid causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups” so as to “minimize any negative impact on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare.”
Thank you, WHO. But minimising impact on tourism is not my main concern right now. Your statement, quickly followed by the leaked Abuja Teaching Hospital circular, reminded me of Shu’aibu Tsamaye, a dishevelled local musician who used to go from house to house in Sokoto in the 1970s singing his popular tunes from drug addiction to Udoji salary bonanza. One day in 1974, Shu’aibu arrived at our house and sang a new song. It was titled Ana wata ga wata ta samu, roughly translated as ‘we are still grappling with one problem and here comes another.’ Before he began singing, Shu’aibu provided a short explanation. He said, “Men’s manhoods are being stolen in this country. In the midst of that, some people have just been caught selling donkey meat to unsuspecting customers. That is the reason for this song.”
Doctors, is there no end to public health scares, one coming hot on the heels of another? In 1971 this country was turned upside down by a great cholera epidemic that claimed thousands of lives. People collapsed and died within minutes from vomiting and diarrhoea. Returning from primary school one day, I saw my cousin Bajini eating sugarcane near the market square. Before I got home, a man overtook me on a hired bicycle and told my grandfather that Bajini had just died from vomiting and stooling, tell-tale signs of cholera.
In late 1982, Nigeria was again turned upside down by an outbreak of the cattle disease rinderpest. Whole cattle herds were being infected with the viral disease. Newspaper stories claimed at the time that it was buffaloes in the Yankari Game Reserve that spread rinderpest to cattle herds. While the rinderpest scare lasted, everyone in Nigeria was afraid of eating beef. President Shehu Shagari’s Federal Government, together with state governments, scrambled to do a mass inoculation of cattle. Land Rovers with inoculation teams were seen roaming the countryside in search of cattle herds.
We heard from elders at the time that the old Native Authorities in Northern Nigeria were always well prepared for rinderpest outbreaks. That was because, in those pre-oil boom days, the cattle tax jangali was one of the most important revenue sources for the Regional Government and Native Authorities. However, in his budget speech on January 1, 1974, General Yakubu Gowon abolished jangali, perhaps because OPEC quadrupled crude oil prices in 1973 and the Federal Treasury was awash in money. With the abolishing of jangali, state governments and local authorities no longer cared much about cattle diseases, cattle routes or grazing reserves, leading directly to the problems of today.
Only a year after the rinderpest outbreak, our newspapers exploded with stories about the outbreak of a genital disease called Herpes. Allegations at the time were that it started from university female hostels. Before Herpes, the most feared Sexually Transmitted Disease was gonorrhoea. Students called it ‘GC’ after its causative germ, gonococcus or ‘VD’ for venereal disease. In those days a lot of students got gonorrhoea, which caused great pain during urination. Luckily, the hospitals had a very effective treatment for it in the form of ampicillin injection, which made it possible to urinate within an hour.
In 1987, we suddenly heard about the outbreak in Europe of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy [BSE], popularly called Mad Cow disease. Though it was not reported here, we were all very apprehensive because one Nigerian newspaper carried the screaming headline that Nigerian businessmen had rounded up carcasses of British cows destroyed due to Mad Cow and had shipped them to Nigeria.
Worst affected by Mad Cow was Britain. Many countries of continental Europe banned imports of British beef. There was an incident in the early 1990s when German Chancellor Helmut Kohl visited London. British Prime Minister John Major, who insisted that Mad Cow had been contained, served British beef at a dinner he hosted in Kohl’s honour. The German Chancellor jovially ate the beef, which caused an uproar in Germany. The Economist magazine then pointed out in an editorial that Mad Cow disease had a ten years’ incubation period and since Kohl was nearly 70, it didn’t really matter.
The mother of all epidemics, HIV/AIDS, was sprung on the human race in the 1980s. Human Immunodeficiency Virus was first identified in a French lab in 1981 but the scare reached a crescendo in the mid-1980s. At first HIV/AIDS was thought to affect only homosexuals and heroin addicts that shared needles. Its association with sexual transmission soon created a huge social stigma around HIV. Government was urging everyone to go for a test but what was the point, since doctors said HIV had no cure?
A nasty international argument also erupted when Western medical authorities claimed that HIV originated in Africa from Simian Immunodeficiency Virus [SIV] found in apes. African nationalists, aided by the world’s Communists, countered that HIV emanated from Western biochemical warfare labs from where it accidentally escaped into the general population. My friends and I were angry with HIV; why did it arrive during our time and poured sand into our gari?
Early this century, just as we were getting a handle on HIV, came the first reports of bird flu outbreak. Where rinderpest and Mad Cow scared us from eating beef, bird flu scared everyone from eating chicken. Chicken by the thousands were culled in any Nigerian farm where bird flu was found. Government was supposed to pay compensation to the farmers but many of them came up empty handed. Soon afterwards we heard about the outbreak of SARS [Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome] in Asia. We saw gruesome pictures on television of thousands of chicken being culled in Hong Kong and Thailand.
Early last decade, we had the Ebola pandemic. There had been small scale Ebola outbreaks in Uganda and Congo over the years, which were easily contained. The great pandemic that erupted in Guinea in December 2013 soon created the biggest international health scare since HIV. At a point it looked as if Ebola would wipe out the populations of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. In Nigeria, Ebola created a national hero in Dr. Adadevoh who tried to confine the man who brought Ebola to Nigeria. President Goodluck Jonathan called him “that crazy man Sawyer.” Ebola caused the biggest national madness in Nigeria when, one frenzied night, millions of Nigerians woke up at night and took a saltwater bath, based on the say-so of a social media chat.
It also earned us an unusual accolade. On the day that WHO certified Nigeria as Ebola free, CNN said Ebola was contained here because “Nigeria has a very good health care system.” When I heard that I said to myself, “Then why is everybody going to Egypt, India and Dubai for treatment?”
Just when we were celebrating the end of Ebola, Lassa fever returned with vengeance. It was first identified in 1969 when the virus killed some missionaries in Lassa town in Borno State. We were very scared because the virus that causes this haemorrhagic fever is carried around by rats. Which house is there in Nigeria that has no rats?
Before we could get a grip on Lassa fever, we heard about the outbreak in Latin America of the Zika virus, which causes babies to be born with small heads [microcephaly]. Zika is ferried around by mosquito, which is a thousand times more common than rats. And then two years ago, we had the great COVID 19 pandemic, which grounded the whole world. Just as we are clicking glasses that COVID is mostly gone, we now hear of monkey pox and Marburg. Shu’aibu Tsamaye was right. In the midst of one, here comes another.