That season of the year is here again, with very cold, dry and dusty weather. Obviously, no living thing on this side of the earth is spared of its desiccating effect, as plants and animals alike are feeling the intense cold just like human beings.
It is the harmattan period in Nigeria, and virtually, all states of the federation are affected by the hazy weather, but the northern states are worst hit.
Characterised with a dry and dusty wind that blows southwards from the Sahara across the country, it occurs between the end of November and March each year. On its passage over the desert, it picks up large amounts of dust particles. The particles are transported hundreds of kilometres over the south.
Public health experts have expressed concerns on the dry weather conditions associated with the harmattan, noting that it has various health implications on humans, affecting their respiratory system, skin and eyes. The number of people that come down with cold and cough, as well as a viral infection commonly referred to as flu, usually increases at this period of the year. The ear, nose and throat are always the first to be affected.
Speaking with a Public Health Physician, Prof. Oliver C. Ezechi, of the Clinical Sciences Department, Nigerian Institute of Medical Research, Lagos, he said citizens are likely to face health challenges during this period, and thus must keep warm to avoid being exposed to weather-related health problems.
Health hazards of harmattan
Ezechi highlighted some of the negative impacts of the season on human health, saying the cold and dry air irritates the respiratory system and makes it difficult for asthmatic patients to breathe easily. In addition to that, unprotected exposure to cold weather is an open invitation to diseases like rheumatism, pneumonia and arthritis; and, in severe cases, death from hypothermia.
“Very cold weather, could lead to joint and muscle pains, which may result in rheumatic pain in the neck, back or legs in future. Typically chronic rheumatic pains in joints or muscles become more intense during exposure to cold weather.
“The cool temperature helps the bacteria and virus that cause pneumonia, laryngitis and pharyngitis to thrive. The risk of respiratory irritation is quite high when the weather is very cold and it becomes easy to catch these bacterial or viral infections”, he asserted.
The public health physician also mentioned the possibility of a meningococcal meningitis epidemic, which is usually experienced around this period. The harmattan season is not the best of times for sickle cell anaemia patients, as it triggers sickle cell crisis often. “The oxygen carrying capacity of the blood is usually reduced in extremes of temperatures, like cold. Sickle cell anaemia patients should take precaution and keep warm as much as possible to prevent a crisis”, he cautioned.
Prof. Ezechi also extended his warning to drivers and air travelers to be very careful this period, as the harmattan haze can cause poor visibility, which could lead to horrible auto-crash and air crash. “Other minor health challenges one could face during this period include cracking of lips or cold, dry skin, catarrh, cough”, he said.
Care of infants, children and elderly in harmattan
Stilling on staying healthy during the very cold and inimical weather condition, the President, Society for Public Health Professionals of Nigeria, Prof. Michael Asuzu, expressed his deep concern for the healthcare of infants, children and aged.
He noted that: “Infants, children and the elderly are more vulnerable to hypothermia (core body temperature below 35 degrees centigrade) due to sub-optimal temperature regulating mechanism”. And to maintain wellness for this set of people, Asuzu advised on proper clothing in order to keep warm all day.
Asuzu, also called attention to the sensitivity of the eyes, as they are exposed to the dust particles carried by the dry, cold and dusty wind leading to itching, redness, and foreign body sensation, which could lead to allergic eye diseases. For the prevention of this condition, he urged the aged as well as the young to put on goggles while they are outside their residents.
For the prevention of respiratory tract infection, people are advised to cloth themselves properly, and donation of clothing materials is necessary at this time to the poor who have less clothes to wear and cover properly.
As posited by Ezechi, Asuzu also mentioned the prevalence of Meningococcal Meningitis during this hazy and dry weather, especially in the north. Thus, he urged residents to take advantage of readily available Meningococcal Meningitis vaccines for prevention purpose.
The President, Society for Public Health Professionals of Nigeria, has also charged public health officers or medical officers in the northern part of the country to ensure that they notify residents about control measures, in order to prevent an outbreak of the disease.
Caution to Asthma patients
Due to the peculiarity of Asthmatics, the duo jointly encouraged them to give special attention to their health and take all possible and practicable measures to reduce exposure to the dusty atmosphere. They should carry their inhalers with them at all times. Sickle cell patients should be vigilant and keep warm as much as possible to prevent a crisis.
The weather is very deceptive at this time of the year. One minute, it is very hot and the next minute, it is cold. The sun may be shining, but there is a chill in the air. Parents need a lot of wisdom when it comes to taking care of their children during harmattan. Give them lots of water to drink and fruits to eat as this will help to reinforce their immunity to infections during the period.