The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (NCDC) has called on states affected by diphtheria to launch extensive education campaigns to tackle vaccine hesitancy.
The director-general of the NCDC, Ifedayo Adetifa, said this to journalists on Sunday in Abuja.
Mr Adetifa defined diphtheria as a serious bacterial infection caused by a bacterium called Corynebacterium species that affects the nose, throat, and sometimes the skin of an individual.
He said people most at risk of contracting diphtheria were children and adults who had not received any or a single dose of the pentavalent vaccine (a diphtheria toxoid-containing vaccine).
According to him, those likely to be affected are people who live in a crowded environment, in areas with poor sanitation, and healthcare workers exposed to suspected or confirmed cases of diphtheria.
On transmission, the NCDC added that the disease spreads easily among people through direct contact with infected people, droplets from coughing or sneezing, and contact with contaminated clothing and objects.
The symptoms of diphtheria include fever, runny nose, sore throat, cough, red eyes (conjunctivitis), and neck swelling.
In severe cases, the NCDC said that a thick grey or white patch appeared on the tonsils and/or at the back of the throat, associated with difficulty breathing.
The director general, however, said in Nigeria, vaccine hesitancy had been a significant obstacle to achieving widespread immunisation coverage.
“This hesitancy is fueled by various factors, including lack of awareness, cultural and religious beliefs, fear of side effects, and mistrust in the healthcare system.
“However, efforts are underway to debunk myths and misconceptions surrounding vaccines and address these issues head-on through the national infodemic management team,” he said.
Mr Adetifa said that campaigns by affected states should be aimed at providing accurate information about vaccines, their benefits, and the rigorous testing and safety protocols they undergo.
“By disseminating this knowledge, individuals can make informed decisions based on scientific evidence rather than misinformation.
“And, crucially, engaging healthcare professionals plays a vital role in addressing vaccine hesitancy.”
According to him, health professionals should be empowered with up-to-date knowledge and communication skills to effectively address concerns and provide evidence-based information to the public.
He said that by leveraging their expertise, they could play a pivotal role in dispelling myths and misconceptions surrounding vaccines.
According to him, community engagement is another key strategy for tackling vaccine hesitancy.
He said community leaders, religious leaders, and influencers should be involved in vaccine education efforts to help debunk myths within their communities.
“Their influence and trust can help bridge the gap between scepticism and acceptance, ensuring that accurate information reaches even the most hesitant individuals,” he said.
Mr Adetifa said digital platforms were paramount in today’s digital age.
“These platforms should be leveraged to share accurate information, debunk myths, and address concerns promptly.
“By reaching a wide audience through these channels, the message of vaccine safety and efficacy will be amplified and reach those who need it the most,” he said.
He said that transparency and accountability were also crucial in addressing vaccine hesitancy.
“Ensuring transparency in vaccine distribution to every community in your states, safety monitoring, and adverse event reporting builds trust in the healthcare system.
“By being open and accountable, concerns about the healthcare system can be addressed, and individuals can feel confident in their decision to receive vaccines,” he said.
The director general said states would be able to address vaccine hesitancy through a combination of vaccine education campaigns and engagement with healthcare professionals and community leaders.
Other avenues, according to him, will be through utilisation of local media platforms and transparency in the healthcare system.
He said that by debunking myths and providing accurate information, the goal was to empower individuals to make informed decisions and contribute to increasing vaccine acceptance and coverage rates in their states.
According to him, the grim aftermath of the diphtheria outbreak serves as a stark testament to the critical significance of vaccination.
“We still have above a million children who haven’t had a single vaccination, making it the second-largest group of its kind globally.”
He said it was imperative that everyone unite and promptly work to significantly diminish this figure.
“Every Nigerian child is entitled to safeguarding against avoidable illnesses. There’s no room for negotiation on this matter.
“Every parent wants to do what is best for their children. We know about the importance of car seats, baby gates, and other ways to keep them safe.
“But did you know that one of the best ways to protect our children is to make sure they have all of their vaccinations?” he said.
He called on state governors to ensure routine immunisations were strengthened through community engagement and ensure health systems avoid similar outbreaks in the future.
“I know parents will be wondering why their child should get a diphtheria shot.
“It protects them against diphtheria, which can be very serious and even deadly, as well as tetanus, and whooping cough (pertussis).
“It prevents your child from developing a thick coating in the back of the nose or throat from diphtheria that can make it hard to breathe or swallow.
“It keeps your child from missing school or child care, and you from missing work,” he said.
The director general said that diphtheria shots were safe and effective at preventing diphtheria.
“Vaccines, like any medicine, can have side effects. These are usually mild and go away on their own,” he said.
The NCDC boss said that preventing diphtheria depended almost completely on giving diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis vaccines to children (DTaP) and non-immunised adolescents and adults.
Diphtheria infections in the country have continued to increase, with recorded suspected cases hitting 13,204 as of reports on Oct. 3.
Out of the suspected cases, 8,406 have been confirmed from 114 local government areas (LGAs) across 19 states, including the Federal Capital Territory.
Of the 8,406 confirmed cases, 6,202 (73.7 per cent) are between the ages of one and 14 years, out of which 7,188 are from Kano State in the North-West, which accounts for 86 per cent of the total 8,406 confirmed cases.
Yobe state followed on the log of infections with 775 cases, while Katsina and Borno states recorded 232 and 118 cases, respectively.
Statistics have also shown that Jigawa state has recorded 23 infections, followed by Bauchi (20), Kaduna (17), Lagos (8), and FCT (6).
Others included Gombe, with five, while Osun and Sokoto states have recorded three cases each.
While Niger has recorded two cases, six states, namely, Cross River, Enugu, Imo, Nasarawa, Zamfara, and Kebbi, have recorded a single case each.