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The Case for Garri and Lassa Fever

4 mins read While a competent advisory, it is a hygiene issue, not a garri issue.

Photo Credit: The Guardian Nigeria 4 mins read

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Expert cautions Nigerians not to drink garri, the popular Nigeria staple food. 

The Guardian Nigeria, referencing NAN as its source published a story on the 18th of January 2020. The story cautions against the consumption of soaked Garri to avoid contacting Lassa fever. The Guardian attributed the warning to Dr Boniface Okolo. 

The doctor claimed that rats are in contact with the most popular staple food ‘Garri’ which is a product of cassava. And, rats cause Lassa fever; hence necessitating the need to discourage Nigerians from consuming soaked Garri since it did not need boiled water. 

He further explained that water at a boiling point could kill bacteria caused by pests or rodents. And since people usually soak ‘Garri’, not boil, we should avoid it. In one of the sentences, the report quoted him saying, “it is better the cassava flakes locally known as Garri be used for “eba…” 

“We in the health ministry are waging war against rodents through sensitisation, that is what we are doing to ensure we do not have victims of Lassa fever in the state”

Dr Okolo

Also, a 2016 publication of  Kapital FM 92.9, another medical expert, says:

“We are waging total war, and that is: War against Rats, and that is what we are going to do to ensure we do not have another victim of Lassa fever”.  

A 2018 publication by Sahara reporters also agrees with this assertion amongst others.

What is VHF?

VHF stands for Viral hemorrhagic fevers– a group of viruses that interfere with the blood’s ability to clot. These fevers include Ebola and Marburg, Lassa fever and yellow fever viruses. Their threat level ranges from benign to life-threatening as the case may be. These viruses live in animals, especially rodents (Rats).

Contact with infected animals, people or insects results in infection. While these viruses infect rodents or insects, they can also affect people exposed to the body, fluids or droppings of an infected rodent. So a bite from an infected mosquito or crushing an infected tick carrying VHF are sure ways of becoming infected. 

Common symptoms of infected parties include:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Muscle aches
  • Loss of strength
  • Exhaustion

Also, people with severe cases can exhibit the following symptoms:

  • Bleeding: (under the skin, internal organs, or from body openings like the mouth, eyes, or ears).
  • Shock
  • Seizures
  • Nervous system failure
  • Coma
  • Delirium
  • Kidney failure

Brief History

Lassa fever, discovered and named after a community in Borno state, is a viral haemorrhagic fever found in mastomys rodent or multimammate rats. These are rodents recognised by their pointed mouths and unique kind of odour.

Image source: WHO

Lassa fever is an animal-borne disease, that is, spread from animals to humans. Humans are infected if they come in contact with house-hold items, food, water, contaminated with the droppings or urine of an infected multimammate rat (mastomys).

Multimamate rodents live throughout West Africa, and they can shed this virus without being ill themselves. People can become sick if they have contact with anything infected or contaminated by these rats.

The incubation period of Lassa fever is between 6 – 21 days. Generally, symptoms begin with fever, general weakness, and malaise( a general feeling of discomfort). Subsequently, headache, sore throat, muscle pain, chest pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, cough, and abdominal pain may follow.

But in severe cases, there is facial swelling, fluid in the lung cavity, bleeding from the mouth, nose, vagina, or gastrointestinal tract and low blood pressure may develop. 

Symptoms

Image source: Avon

The Premise

Rodents such as the rat that transmit Lassa fever virus lives around houses. Also, they have the habit of contaminating opened food with its excreta. We already established that the latter carries the virus. Additionally, once a rodent becomes a carrier of this fever, it will excrete the virus throughout the rest of its lifetime; thus, creating ample opportunity for exposure. 

Consequently, all forms of food contaminated with the carrier’s (rat) urine, eaten without any processing (heat), creates room for transmission. Although, it is essential to note that some forms of bacteria- like Thermophilic– can thrive in high temperatures.   

Why is Garri the subject of the conversation?

If all food products are susceptible to this virus, why was garri singled out? The publication centred on garri because it is a staple food. It is a food that consumed without the “processing” we talked about earlier; it is more of a ready-made or “to-go” snack. For this reason, drinking garri produced or sold in an unhygienic condition or environment can expose the buyer to this virus. 

While Garri is not the only food vulnerable to infection, there is hardly any ready-made food that is as popular as it. As a matter of fact, on occasion, people eat garri straight from the bag when buying from the market; in a bid to find out its “quality”. However, this advisory exempts eba, prepared with hot water, consequently killing the viral infection. 

Also, food products such as rice, semovita, sugar, beans, millet, wheat etc. are susceptible to this infection; if they are not covered. But unlike garri, their preparation involves boiling.

Prevent Lassa Fever

Image source: NCDC

General Hygiene is Essential

General hygiene is critical and essential for controlling viral infection. Keeping your food items cooked, sealed or covered is imperative. Additionally, leaving utensils, pans and other items clean and germ-free are measures one should put in place to avoid viral infection.

Conclusion

While soaked Garri may be a risk factor for Lassa fever, it boils down to several factors. The hygiene of both you and your vendor are criteria to consider as well. Keeping your house rodent-free is just as important.

Temilade Onilede is a researcher and the Programme Assistant for Dubawa, Nigeria. She holds an undergraduate degree in Performing Arts From the University of Ilorin, Ilorin Kwara State. She is a trained journalist, with good research and writing skills, coupled with her knowledge in Journalism; a personable character and an engaging mind who is well skilled in the field of fact-checking and verification.

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