Anxiety pervades some local communities in Kaduna State, Northwest part of Nigeria, following the reported outbreak of River Blindness, an eye and skin infection that results in blindness.
River Blindness is a disease caused by infection with the parasitic worm Onchocerca volvulus. Symptoms include severe itching, bumps under the skin, and blindness. It is the second most common cause of blindness due to infection, after trachoma.
Facts gathered at the Department of Health, Kajuru Local Government Area (LGA) secretariat, indicates that 14 districts are affected by the disease in the LGA alone.
Reports from the areas showed that many people within the affected communities have already gone blind while hundreds are suffering from eye infections that may lead to blindness.
The affected districts are Maro ward 1 district Maro District, Idon ward – 2 districts Idon and Iri districts, Tantatu ward – 1 district Tantatu. Afogoh ward – 1 Afogoh district, Kufana ward – 2 Kufana and Angwan Aku districts.
Others are Rimau ward – 1 Rimau district, Kalla ward – 1 Kalla district, Kajuru ward – 4 districts, Kyamara, Dawaki, Buda and districts, Kasuwan Magani ward – 1 Dustsen Gaiya district, Others include Ungwan Makama village in Robo and Angwan Fada and Angwan Aku in Fadama kuroro districts.
All these districts are within Iri Districts axis which is one of the areas with high prevalent cases of River Blindness in the local government.
This discovery followed a month of investigation carried out by a team of five investigative journalists including our correspondent in the villages affected.
The team discovered that River Iri, which served as a source of water to the communities within Iri Station and Makoro districts, was said to be the breeding place for tsetse flies which caused River Blindness within Iri village.
According to findings, the villagers got bitten by tsetse flies whenever they go to the river to fetch water and the flies carried a warm that caused blindness to those bitten.
Lack of access to clean water has always been the problem of the communities around Iri with population of over 100.
Findings further showed that villagers using water from River Iri are from Hayin Sarki, Sabon Gida, Inkirmi, Karmai, Makoro and Gadan Malam Mamman, among others.
People of Hayin Sarki, a village across River Iri Bridge built by the World Bank, still fetch water from the river known for spreading the tsetse flies despite the risk involved.
The villagers claimed they have no access to clean water so they still go to the river to fetch water while leaders within the community expressed fear because the flies still breed around the riverside.
An elderly woman and mother of two children, Yawo Yuguda, explained how she got blind several years ago.
“I got blind years back and till date nobody has told me the reason for my blindness. I even went to Kafanchan Hospital for treatment but they couldn’t explain to me the main reason for the blindness. So I have taken it as my destiny,” she said.
Alisabaltu Zankwa is another blind woman within Iri village who said she got blind 30 years ago. “Well, when people started going blind in the village nobody came to explain the reason behind it, we were only left to go looking for help. Mine started like a joke with itching before I later lost my sight completely,” she said.
Sixty-year-old Abdulmumini Ali said his eye problem started three years ago. “I started having this eye problem three years ago. It started with itching, sometimes I feel as if I’m being bitten inside.
“My elder brother has already lost his sight and the problem is the same. It all started last three years ago. We know something was wrong in the village but we don’t know what it is,” he said.
Village Head of Hausa Community in the village, 65-year-old Malam Garba, has lost complete sight of his left eye.
“I can’t see with my left eye as I talk to you now and this problem just started last year. I don’t know the cause but it began with itching. Now, the right eye too is having problem which is making me worried because it seems soon I will lose my sight completely.
“The last time I could remember some people came and fumigated River Iri was in the 1970s. Because they said the problem was the river. We were told that there were tsetse flies in the riverside,” he said.
Paul Sanda, a retired soldier, said he returned to the village with his family three years ago and soon started losing his sight.
“When I was in the city my eyes were fine but since I returned home after my retirement my eyes started having problems. That was in 2003. I visited the National Eye Centre where I was operated upon but I’m still not seeing clearly,” he said.
Eighty-year-old Doma Obandoma said he lost his sight completely in 2012. “The problem is some of us don’t go to hospital because we are poor and we don’t know the real cause of the blindness in the community but people said it’s has to do with the river. We just need help,” he said.
Sixty-five-year-old Alex Danladi said hers began as a pain and it started five years ago. “It began with itching before I went to the hospital once and they gave me drugs, but still the pains and itching continued. My daughter too who is 18 years old started complaining about same eye itching last year.
“The truth is before we moved from city to village we never had this symptom. So, we are all worried because we don’t know the cause,” she said.
District Head of Iri, Peter Magaji, expressed worry over the re-emergence of the flies in the area.
“Well, your visit made us to realise the gravity of the issue. My people came out in their numbers to explain that they are going blind and we suspect River Iri.
“The river was fumigated years back which helped kill the flies but now I heard that the flies are resurfacing which means something urgent needs to be done.
“We are appealing to government to help provide us with boreholes in Iri Station District because River Iri is the only source of water for this village and those around us. The river sometimes gets dried up but people still go there to dig in search of water.
“I’m afraid that people from Hayin Sarki and neighbouring villages still fetch water from the dried river despite the risk involved. I think if the local government can provide us with a borehole and it will go a long way in addressing the water problem,” he said.
The district head also appealed to government for a frequent fumigation of the river to control the flies.
The team also discovered that government needs to wake up to its responsibility in terms of provision of health care service delivery in the state because it appears that it is only Sight Saver, an NGO, that is providing medical attention to victims of River Blindness in the state.
According to budget document of Kaduna State, Sight Savers spends over N11 million annually for provision of the drug Mectizan and other services in the state.
According to observers, if the NGO decides to withdraw it intervention the situation will be disastrous for the villagers and the state.
Programme Officer of Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTD) at the Health Department of Kajuru LGA, Francis Habakuk, said they received a delegation last November of some visitors from the United States in collaboration with the NPHCDA in Abuja.
He listed communities visited by the team to include Rafin Kunu and Angwan Fada all under Kajuru but Iri was excluded. The delegation was led by the NTD coordinator in Kaduna State.
“We ask thecCommunity members to report cases of River Blindness to us, but they don’t report to us. They just sit at home.
“Since I assume office in the last five years, it’s only old cases of River Blindness that we have on record, except for the one new case M&E reported in Agwala in Afogoh District, Afogoh,” he said.
It’s now obvious that hundreds are going blind in the area. Why? Because the communities seem to be neglected, and there is a gap that needs to be filled urgent by the government on one hand (by taking action to remedy the situation), and the local people on the other (by reporting cases of River Blindness and promptly seeking medical attention).
By Mohammad Ibrahim