Dr. Cecilia Ojabo is the Commissioner for Health and Human Services, Benue state. In this interview with DONALD KUMUN, the Associate Professor of Optamology at the Benue State University Teaching Hospital (BSUTH), lamented the dearth of primary health care system in Benue. She said Benue is a hyper endemic area for onchocerciasis (River Blindness) and promised to overhaul the health sector to ensure good health for all citizens. Excerpts:
Nigeria has just celebrated one year of free cases of polio malaitis. What measures would you take to ensure that the present situation is sustained in the Benue state?
The plans are constant immunization exercise. The immunization programme has been very active and the people that are engaged are equally active. They have been going from house to house ensuring that children of those ages are immunized against the six killer diseases which polio is one of them. So the sustained action has given Nigeria the positive result. Polio is a viral disease and it multiplies where you have a dirty environment. But with the effective polio immunization programmes on ground, we will not have reoccurrence of cases of polio again. This goes for the other childhood diseases as well, If government can sustain the expanded programme on immunization, we will definitely get rid of polio and all other child killer diseases. And I want to assure that my office will ensure it is sustained in Benue here.
You just resumed office as the Commissioner for Health and Human Services. What are your plans for the state health sector especially as it concerns government owned hospitals?
For the past few years, the health sector has not been what it should be. In any government, we are talking about three tiers of health system delivery; the primary healthcare which takes care of the grassroots, the secondary and the tertiary healthcare. The primary healthcare has not assumed the role that it was meant to play. Just as we all know, about 80 per cent of the populace reside in the rural area and 20 per cent in the urban. In the health care delivery, 80 per cent of healthcare is in the urban while 20 per cent is in the rural areas. So it is in reverse in population and health care delivery. The efforts we are making is that where the majority of the populace is residing there should be a good foundation of healthcare delivery. So for the primary healthcare delivery, there is a board at the state level. so that there will be effective linkage and a good referral system that will make the it sustainable.
In the past, I have been to many villages including mine, the infrastructures for the health clinics are physically there but when you go there, there will be no drugs, no staff and not that the staff were not posted there. They were posted but they go there and still return to town where their families are, abandoning the places of their primary assignment. So, when the villagers fall sick, they have to access healthcare in a private hospital and the nearest to them may be seven to 15 kilometers away, and God help us if a woman has an obstructed labour, the roads are very bad and only a motor bike can be used to convey her to the hospital. Anything can happen on the way. We really need to address the grassroots healthcare system and if we do that we will link it up with the secondary level which is the General hospital. In the case of General hospitals, the stories I’m hearing is that some are not functioning and if they are functional, the number of staff there are not adequate and If they are adequate, they are not equitably distributed. So all these needs urgent attention.
How do you intend to address all these challenges you have highlighted in the health sector?
I just chaired an occasion organised by the Nigerian Medical Association, (NMA), Benue State Chapter where I informed all the doctors that the present government has the interest of the people at heart. So I charged them to improve the doctor patient relationship. I have witnessed a situation where a patient approach a healthcare centre and the doctor is not there. Anything can happen so I advised them to take their work serious and to be there when they need to be there. Healthcare delivery is like playing football. If I pass the ball to you and you refuse to pass it where it is supposed to be passed, the person can die and you know death is irreversible. So we are here to make sure we record minimal cases of death and to deliver healthcare to all those who need it.
What is your plan to address issues of cholera outbreak threatening some communities in the state?
Simple measures like digging pit toilets will go a long way to control cholera. But you see them defecating in the bush and when rain fall, all the feases will be washed into their water source and they will still fetch it to cook and drink. So why won’t there be cholera. So if there is adequate provision of portable water in the state and simple health education to communities that some habits are injurious to their health, it will curb cholera.
There is a lot of quackery in the health sector especially in private hospitals in the state. Is your office planning on checkmating the activities of quacks in the health sector?
The issue of quacks has been an issue of contention on us and it is a concern for me. I told the NMA that it is not just collecting dues from members that matter but that they should know who is a doctor and who is a quack. They were citing an instance of a lady damaging people’s skin in the North Bank area of Makurdi. If I get the correct information on that, we will go there and closed down such practices. So we will address quackery as far as it is within my powers to do so.
Traditional medicine producers have been a source of worry to Brnue residents. From time to time, you see them advertising one product or another that has the capacity to treat or cure several ailments at the same time. How prepared are you to address this issue?
This issue is not peculiar to Benue state alone. They have an act that enable them to market their traditional medicine. So, I am not going to tell you that we are going to close down their businesses but we are going to monitor and control their activities. Like in the conventional medicine, the doctors, we are not allowed to advertise our practices. It is against our ethics. So we need to bring these people to the knowledge that advertisement is not allowed in health matters. Your results should attract more patients to you and not you singing your praises.
There is a report that by W.H.O that by 2016, several people in Nigeria will go blind. As a specialist in this area, what do you think should be done to avert this situation?
As for river blindness, the programme of Onchocerciasis is in place in all the state of the federation. The drugs have been donated by the American government ant it is free. But there are certain limitations. People have their own ideas.
For instance, the Hausa community said because government does not want their population to grow, they have brought these drugs. They are alienating themselves from taking it and it is free. It has cost American government money to make these drugs available but because of the belief and lack of understanding they are not accepting the use of those drugs.
In Benue, almost a whole community of Ikyor in Kwande local government Area of the state was rendered blind because of the Onchocerchiasis. The damage has been done before the Metizan drugs was made available. And for the healthy people in that community, the drugs were supplied to them. Benue is a hyper endemic area for the river blindness and if you take it because I also take it, worms will not blind your eyes. The other causes of blindness like glaucoma, glaucoma is our worst enemy. You may be carrying it and may not know until a specialist tells you that you have glaucoma and then you start early treatment. If glaucoma blinds you it’s irreversible but if diseases like cataract blinds you, it’s good news because it is reversible. So people should access the metizan drugs, use it to help themselves.