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Malnutrition epidemic, infections rage in destitute homes


Camps for the homeless and the disabled in southwest Nigeria are reeling under neglect, hunger and diseases, a grim condition that could potentially trigger needless deaths, reports GBENGA OGUNDARE

Statistics of confirmed Covid-19 infection in Lagos State as at September 2020 has spilled over 18,000 cases already — a 5000 leap from the 13,000 residents Lagos State Commissioner for Health, Akin Abayomi predicted will catch the Covid-19 bug “…if everyone practices good social distancing…”

But in the worst case scenario, the Health Commissioner says the State might be looking at a total 39,000 cases after all.

With four inhabitants already dead this year alone due to unfathomable reasons at the Destitutes Home on 28 Okobaba Street in Ebute-Meta, Lagos Mainland Local Government, according to revelation by Mohammed Baba, a leprosy survivor in the camp, and Lagos State Secretary of Integrated Dignity Economic Advancement (IDEA), the umbrella association of leers in Nigeria, the camp appears a perfect disaster zone for unrestricted transmission and fatality any day.

The first neon-bright indicator of an incubating pestilence as you arrive at this enclosed community is the massive crowd of vulnerable Nigerians—lepers, cripple, blind,old and frail citizens, as well as skinny, undernourished children–  all tightly strewn together without respect for physical distancing and those other protocols with which the Lagos State Government hopes to rein in the spread of the coronavirus.

“Do your people know about the coronavirus already,’ the reporter asked Mohammed.

“Yes, we always tell them,’ he replied.

“So why are they not using face mask with all of the crowd of people that come in and out of the camp every now and then?”

“Well, some dey use if they want go out,’ explained Mohammed.

Brimming with a population spiraling at over 1000 inhabitants, and largely dependent on occasional handouts from government and other charitable minds, only a few things would appear as normal to anyone visiting the destitute home in Okobaba for the first time.

Apart from the three blocks of buildings erected over twenty years ago in the camp —one section for the lepers, another for the blind and the third for cripples— as well as  a mosque, there is neither an hospital nor the presence of health workers in the crowded Okobaba destitute home.

So it’s impossible to stave off person-to-person transmission of infections among inhabitants of this community, explained Kazeem Omokanye, a Lagos-based General Medicine practitioner. “As for overcrowding, it impacts negatively on the health of the inhabitants, physically, socially and emotionally. Health being,according to WHO, a complete state of wellbeing physically, emotionally and socially. And not just the absence of diseases or infirmity.”

The destitute of Okobaba care less anyway. For one, majority of the inhabitants here are largely unlettered persons living with disabilities from the North, and can hardly make a sense of the sensitization messages the United Nations, National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and other government agencies spew out every now and then to keep the citizenry informed of the need to take responsibility.

Spending a whole day interacting with the disable clusters in the last week of August, the reporter found out that regular hand-washing with soap under a running water and the use of sanitizer is not an habit for the destitute of Okobaba. Not even for the legion of do-gooders who bump into one another as they stream into the over-crowded camp every now and then to offer food items, money and toiletries.

There is no potable water fit for use in the camp at any rate, lamented the inhabitants. “This place is below sea level, so the three boreholes we have only produce salt water that we can’t drink,’ Mohammed lamented.

For more than two decades, they have been doing their laundries and bathing with the salt water nonetheless, the reporter learnt, oblivious of the health effects of bathing in salt water for a prolonged period.

Olanrewaju Anifowoshe, Chief Medical Director at the Hansen Disease Hospital in Elega, Abeokuta says bathing with salt water over a sustained period as the destitutes of Okobaba have been doing puts the skin under pressure, and exposes it to infections such as Furunculosis, a scaly and itchy infectious disease of the overlying skin.

And because they live in overcrowded, unhygienic environment, explained Anifowoshe, this further exposes them to all manner of infectious diseases, including malaria, chest infection etc- the pre-existing downers Covid-19 requires to deal its victims a fatal blow.

The destitutes also risk epidemic such as the deadly Meningitis, typhoid infections and skin diseases like scabies and fungal infections, added Omokanye. The current Covid19 pandemic sure will have ease of spread in such area. While immune-related diseases like common cold and the deadly HIV are also possible in this settlement, he explained.

It’s even worse for the lepers among them, argued Anifowoshe, because their skins have been damaged already. So when they bath in salt water, they are exposed to further skin desiccation.

According to Dermatologists, desiccation is the state of extreme dryness   which cracks open the skin and makes attacks from other infections possible.

The lepers in Okobaba, Ogbomosho, Iberekodo and Ijebu-Igbo are not the only ones at risk at any rate. So are the other destitute who dwell with them, revealed Omokanye. “Leprosy will, of course, fester when there is no adequate containment or segregation of those taking treatment with those not affected. And poor rehabilitation of those that have had treatment can lead to re-infection in addition to those other diseases that have been highlighted above.”

Apart from the syndrome of infections they stand to contract from their slimy, dirty toilets and bathrooms, the risk of spiraling blood pressure is also real among this ignorant community, explained Anifowoshe, because it’s likely they also drink from the salt water. “And that’s a risk factor for hypertension, which is why we advise people to cut down their salt intake because hypertension is a silent killer.”

Same grim experience

Move over the eyesore in Okobaba. Every moment at the lepers colony in Ijebu-Igbo, Ogun State is even more nightmarish without an hospital and social workers to offer support to the inhabitants of the camp– majority of who have lost their means of mobility due to the ravages of advanced leprosy.

With less than 40 inhabitants, the colony has lost two lepers this year alone, and about three in 2019, Hammed Jimoh, Chairman of IDEA in Ogun State told the reporter.

No one could attribute the deaths to the ravaging effects of Covid-19 though, but the colony and its inhabitants are not exactly shielded from communicable diseases due largely to lack of water, poor hygiene and sanitation, the reporter found out.

“The machine that use to pump water for us have spoil,’ Ahmed Bakare explained, ‘so we have to manage the water from an abandoned dirty stream in the community if we want to bath or use the toilet.”

Kofi Anan, a Togolese who has spent a decade at the colony already has got no choice really. Like old Taiwo Hassan, Bello Adahunse and others who are unable to make the trip to the stream because of the damage to their sight and fingers, they rely on the benevolence of other slightly mobile mates when nature calls.

They have an option of fetching water from a community well some distance away from the colony too, “but sometimes they don’t allow us because of our condition,’ lamented Bakare.

A famished community

It’s a double disaster actually. Both for the lepers in Ogbomosho, Ijebu-Igbo and Iberekodo in Abeokuta.

Unlike the destitutes home at Okobaba, these three colonies in Oyo and Ogun States respectively hardly play host to visitors who come to offer them relief packages and alms, so the inhabitants and their children are left stranded and hungry most of the time.

A few fortunate ones among them in Iberekodo and Ijebu-Igbo have their names registered on the social welfare list of the Ogun State Government though. And with this, they get N10,000 every month as stipend.

Not so for the lepers in Ogbomosho however. These ones can only pray and hope for the benevolence of the Baptist Church Ogbomosho which comes into the abandoned camp to offer food items.

The N10,000 stipend has become grossly inadequate already, given food price hike, lamented old John Ojoawo. “We are begging the Governor to have mercy on us and help us increase the money because it is not enough for us to feed again, how much less send our children to school.”

The arithmetic of sustaining a family of five, comprising of father, mother and their three children on a daily basis, according to Jimoh, can be depressing really, especially if the children have to go to school too.

“Suppose a family of five manages to live on N500 every day, it means they will finish the N10,000 stipend in twenty days,’ he analyzed.

By implication, an average family at the colony can then go hungry for the remaining ten days of the month until the next stipend comes. And if the extra cost of sending their children to school on a daily basis is added, then the destitute at Iberekodo and Ijebu-Igbo can then expect to endure more days of hunger before they get their next stipends.

They wish they were working to earn a living though. But working to make extra income, for the leprosy survivors, has remained a traumatic adventure, Falilat Ojoawo and Aina Jacob told the reporter.

“The stigma orientation among the populace is still there you know,’ lamented Jimoh, so many still see leprosy as a curse or punishment for a sin commited.”

For Anan, Hassan, Adahunse and others stranded at the Ijebu-Igbo and Ogbomosho camps, living with leprosy is indeed both a curse and punishment.

They’ve got no legs to trek to the farm again. Neither do they have the hands to till the land. “Even for some of us who use to go to the farm, griped Anan, ‘they don’t get any harvest from their farm because animals always eat the crops before harvest time.”

Under international human rights law, Nigeria’s government has an obligation to safeguard the rights of people to adequate standard of living. This also includes provision of adequate food and nutrition, the highest attainable standard of health, and the right to social security.

Already, an estimated 5 in 10 children under five are malnourished, stunted, wasted or overweight, says UNICEF, while 3 in 10 children aged 6 to 23 months live on poor diets.

But with all of their names nowhere to be found in the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) register the federal government flaunts in the face of the public each time they claim to have shelled out billions of tax payers’ money to some poor and vulnerable Nigerians, the destitutes at Ogbomosho, Iberekodo, Ijebu-Igbo and Okobaba and their children can only live on charity until an angel of death comes calling.

  • This story was done with support from the Civic Hive Media Fellowship and BudgIT.

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