This sickness was heard of, first in December last year and we noticed that the disease was spreading from house to house and a few deaths recorded by some families, we informed the health department of the local government area. A health personnel was sent to ascertain the situation, take record and report back for possible response.
When Morris Alagoa, a human rights activist, and representative of Environmental Rights Action, (ERA) group in Bayelsa State brought the story, it was like a fairy incident that happened in medieval period. Who will believe that at this age, scores of children could still die of measles epidemic when the disease has almost been eradicated in some communitiesin the country.
What happened to the regular national immunisation programme against the five killer diseases. Is somebody failing in his duties to provide healthcare for these rural folks. Questions, as you peruse the photographs of a gory story of children in agony and their mums who wear long faces.
In other to convince oneself that the story was not made-up, The Tide On Sunday decided to follow one Morris Alagoa to visit some of the worst affected communities in Southern Ijaw Local Government of Bayelsa State, for a first hand information.
Southern Ijaw Local Government Area is in Bayelsa Central Senatorial district, and believed to belong to the club of largest LGAs in the country.
Most of the communities could only be accessed through the use of river crafts or helicopter (for oil company staff that dot the area). The people are Ijaws whose occupation are mainly fishing and farming. They are also engaged in canoe carving, weaving, hunting and palm wine tapping. A very hard working people. Even women are not left out as they explore their environment and explore the natural resources to full advantage.
This is a period when most people clear new farmlands and plant their crops and also bail their fish ponds, but all that has been put to a temporary stop, as the care of sick child became more important to some parents and guidance.
So when the news of outbreak of the disease reached ERA, Morris Alagoa, stated that directive was given to the field officers to ascertain the story. “What we saw was too serious; he said we had to alert the media”.
Although transport was a serious logistic problem, hence, we were handicapped to visit only the most seriously affected communities of Oporoma, the local government area’s headquarter, Angiana, Ikebiri, Ondewari, Korokorosei Ogboinbiri, Okpotuwari, Umbugbene and Oweikoroghe. Somehow, Ondewari seemed to be worst stricken by the disease.
At Ondewari, a young mother was asked, about the loss of her child. She looked directly at the reporter and restarted. “Have you ever lost a child, how you felt at that moment. The way you feel, is the way I am feeling now, but if you have not, you won’t understand”. With that tears dropped freely from her eyes. Chief Bountin Igburu, a former chairman of the community’s council of chief, said” yes, “we have experienced measles in the community. The outbreak has spread to Oporoma, even in my house there is an affected child now. Several other children have also contracted the disease. As expected, parents are struggling with the situation to save their children.
To Chief Egberibin Jacom, the current chairman, the situation would have been worst but for an ill-equipped health centre, which also lacks modernity, the casualty rate would have been greater.
In Angiama, most of the child victims wears the “colour” of a roasted yam, they did not look pale but very weak and unable to eat. At Ogboinbriri, the community’s secretary, attributed the quick spread of the disease to self medication. According to him, when the disease was first notice it was not brought to public notice until has reached the present proportion,” but we were lucky to have a “small health centre” that is managing the situation.
The measles outbreak, as people of Ondewari puts it, has reached an epidemic proportion in their community. Everyone who spoke on the matter sounded the same. Launching the death of children in the community, Chief Boro Abini said “this sickness was heard of, first in December last year and we noticed that the disease was spreading from house to house and a few deaths recorded by some families, we informed the health department of the local government area. A health personnel was sent to ascertain the situation, take record and report back for possible response.”
“The man actually spent a whole night with us taking records of the affected, those likely to be affected and the dead ones. We mobilised and facilitated the process with hope that the council at the end will come to our rescue”.
“When he left that was all, we are yet to see any other health officials even though we have tried all avenue to report the seriousness of the situation to those in authority.”
It is said, however, to note that since the health officer from the local government departed we have not seen any response from the authorities.
The present situation is that children are dying daily in the town. Children within the ages of two and four years are the most sufferers, especially those dying. Children within that age bracket are all looking frail in the community. You can see this yourself as you go round the town.
Mr. Tontiemotel Yeiyei (secretary of the community), I am over forty years and I have spent a greater part of my life in this town. But I confess that we have not experienced this kind of situation before. It is not as if we have not had other health situations that were equally bad as there was a time we experienced cholera outbreak. Bt in all, we have not seen this type that has claimed the lives of many children. Just within two months this community alone have lost 40 children between the ages of two and four years. It has reached an epidemic level and the situation is beyond us. As you may be aware, we just buried a corpse this morning. We have been burying dead children every other day, sometimes two in a day. Some families have lost two children within days; for instance, the family of Charles Igoniwari lost their two children recently. As a result most parents are not happy, hence, they are not willing to answer you if you go and ask them question about their dead children, and they would ask if you have come to laugh at them”.
“The disease was first noticed in a neighbouring town of Okpotuwari, just across the river. And because we have some chemists in this community the people of Okpotuwari brought their infected children here to get drugs and treatment. And all of a sudden our children were stricken by the disease” he lamented.
The symptoms started spreading from house to house and, after a few deaths were recorded, we sought for help by reaching out to the local government authorities. Unfortunately they are yet to respond positively. They only hunt for eatable maggots which I sell for cash before I attend to any other thing. That is how I make a living. Even yesterday I had to rush into the forest to check one dead raffia palm to get some of my stuffs before I came back to attend to the sick children. While in the bush my mind was always agitated, thinking about the health of my children, more so, as most parents have lost their children recently. I am really confused. And I don’t have money to take the children away in search of treatment. I am just struggling to meet up with the kind of treatments we know here.”
Apart from a health centre under construction in the community which, according to community folk, was started about a month ago, some parents were actually seen either personally injecting their measles stricken children or engaging the services of a relation or neighbour to inject the children. Besides, some of the children (often naked) were seen lying on the laps of their parents appearing very frail and with rashes, making slight sounds with each breath they took; showing the discomforting nature of what they are passing through.
As at last Monday, the communities gave a “consensus figure” alleging that 150 children have died so far, this does not include the 25 that died in early January. However, as stated earlier, World Health Organisation (WHO) through the Doctors Without Boarder has responded to the distress call, but their efforts are being hampered by logistics.
At Oporoma, the council’s headquarter, neither chairman nor the Health Officer in charge could be reached for comment nor could any one volunteer their cell phone number, a security guard, who chose to be anonymous but claimed to be an ex-serviceman said “Oga journalist, these people you’re asking for are visiting staff. Go to Yenagoa and look for them”.
But recently, the state Commissioner of Health Dr. Azibapu Eruani told some selected journalists in office that the situation has been brought to normal, and a team of medical personnel was dispatch to the area and further spread of the diseases but the recent outbreak seems to have contradict what Eruani claimed.
Although several efforts have been made as to have him comment on the recent incident without success as his cell phone continue saying “not available”.
While there are several oil firms operating in the area, the community leaders are saying non of have shown interest in the seeming calamity they are contending with.
As it is now, only God’s intervention would save the communities from further agony, as scores of children aged between two and 15 have already gone. But, the question remains will government reshows non-challant attitude while this “unwanted visit” remains unchallenged? Where then lies its health policy for the people?