Fighting the Shadow: Diphtheria Returns to Nigeria

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By Cecilia Attah

Amid ongoing global health challenges, Nigeria is grappling with the quiet resurgence of a once nearly eradicated disease, diphtheria. This bacterial infection, which primarily affects the respiratory tract and sometimes the skin, is making a comeback in several regions of the country.

Diphtheria is a highly contagious disease caused by the bacterium Corynebacterium diphtheriae and usually presents with a sore throat, fever and difficulty breathing. In severe cases, a thick grey film can form in the throat, which can cause choking. It is a disease that can be fatal, especially in children and the elderly.

Symptoms of diphtheria usually appear two to seven days after infection; transmission can occur through airborne droplets containing the bacteria (spread through sneezing, coughing, and spitting) or by touching an object that contains the bacteria. It is also possible for an infected person to spread the disease through an open wound by touching another person or by touching clothing that another person has touched. It is also possible to get diphtheria more than once.

In the past, diphtheria outbreaks have been reported in Nigeria. The most severe outbreak occurred between February and November 2011 in rural areas of Borno State, which started in Kimba village and other surrounding villages, and in northeastern Nigeria, where 98 cases were reported.

Another outbreak resurfaced in December 2022 when the Nigerian Center for Disease Control and Prevention (NCDC) was informed of suspected diphtheria outbreaks in Kano and Lagos state.

Since the confirmation of the re-emergence of diphtheria in Nigeria in December 2022, the Federal Government of Nigeria, through the Nigerian Center for Disease Control and Prevention (NCDC) and the National Health Care Development Agency Primary Health Care (NPHCDA) continued to respond to diphtheria- Epidemics in different states of the country.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 11,000 cases of diphtheria and 453 deaths have been recorded in Nigeria since the epidemic began in 2022.

In most cases, these are children who are not or partially vaccinated against this disease, and the country is experiencing its second wave of the virus after its first wave of the outbreak, which was recorded between January 2023 to May 2023.

Although the WHO says Nigeria recorded an unusual increase in the number of confirmed diphtheria cases between June 30 and August 31, a total of 5,898 suspected cases were reported in 59 local government areas in 11 states across the villages.

According to the NCDC, in its latest diphtheria situation report for the period May 2022 to July 2023 published on its website, the NCDC confirmed a total of 1,534 diphtheria cases and 139 confirmed diphtheria-related deaths.

The agency noted that most suspected cases were from Kano, Katsina, Yobe, Bauchi, Kaduna and Borno states.

As health workers, officials and communities come together to combat this recurring threat, a closer look reveals the urgency of the situation and the resilience of those on the front lines.

In this tragic situation, the health authorities called on the federal government to carry out a nationwide education and vaccination campaign.

In response, the Minister of Health and Welfare, Muhammad Pate, announced the establishment of an emergency task force to contain the spread of the virus in the country and assured Nigerians that urgent vaccination efforts were underway following the recent diphtheria epidemic in several states with more than 11,000 suspected cases.

The Executive Director of the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA), Dr Faisal Shuaib, assured the public that since the re-emergence of diphtheria was confirmed, the federal government has continued to respond to outbreaks of the disease across the village in different states.

Meanwhile, the representative of the United Nations Children’s Fund in Nigeria, UNICEF, Dr. Rownak Khan, raised the alarm that 2.2 million children in Nigeria have still not received a single dose of diphtheria vaccine and called for the urgent need for universal vaccination.

The agency said it is urgently supporting the Nigerian government in its efforts to combat the epidemic and that an additional $3.3 million is needed by the end of 2023 to effectively respond to the diphtheria epidemic in the country.

As Nigeria faces a new surge in diphtheria cases, the country’s health system, communities and individuals are coming together to prevent the spread of the disease.

The urgency of this epidemic requires immediate attention and action and it is extremely important to raise public awareness of prevention measures and ensure access to vaccines and treatments.

Containing the spread of this highly contagious disease requires joint efforts from local authorities, health organizations and international partners.

The fight against diphtheria reminds us that even the most dangerous diseases can reemerge if we do not keep our commitment to vaccination and public health, and it also demonstrates the resilience and commitment of those who are working tirelessly to protect the health and future of the Nigerian people.



1 thought on “Fighting the Shadow: Diphtheria Returns to Nigeria”

  1. Nigerians needs to be thoroughly educated on how to control, prevent and if possible avoid the spreed of diphtheria, so as to ensure minimum risk of this disease.

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