In the isolated part of a hospital in Kano, northern Nigeria, where dozens of patients are being treated for diphtheria, a 10-year-old girl, surrounded by three nurses, lies on a stretcher inside. a glass cabin.
“She has diphtheria and we have to admit her to intensive care”said, his face hidden by a mask, Usman Hassan, doctor at Murtala Mohammed hospital, supported by the NGO Médecins sans frontières (MSF).
Nigeria is currently battling to contain its worst outbreak of diphtheria since 1989, a highly contagious bacterial infection that attacks the respiratory tract and skin.
After the first cases recorded in 2022, the epidemic has spread to almost half of the 36 states that make up the country, infecting 14,000 people and killing around 800 since the start of the year.
Most cases and infections have been recorded in Kano state, one of the most populous in the country, and also one of the poorest.
Last Thursday, Kano had recorded 10,700 cases of diphtheria and more than 500 deaths, according to MSF, which specifies that women and children under five are the most vulnerable groups.
Without treatment, diphtheria can kill half of those infected and remains fatal in 5% of treated patients.
In the country of 215 million people, vaccination against diphtheria has fallen since 2020, when global attention focused on combating the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to Abubakar Laban Yusuf, Kano health commissioner, this is “the main reason for the upsurge we are seeing today in Kano”blaming the interruption of vaccinations on the previous state government, which left power in May.
According to him, Kano is responsible for 80% of diphtheria infections in Nigeria because the state did not carry out routine vaccination for 19 months.
Kano State alone requires 31 million doses of vaccine for at-risk groups, a target difficult to achieve due to “supply and financial constraints”, according to MSF.
According to Hussein Ismail, MSF project coordinator in Kano, “There is a global shortage of diphtheria vaccines (…) It takes 15 days to produce a vial of vaccine and global demand is high.”
The NGO calls for support from the international community. It has so far supplied 7,000 diphtheria vaccines to Kano, while the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) last month donated 1.2 million vaccine doses to the state.
Vaccination distrust among the population is the other challenge faced by Nigerian health authorities.
Last week, two mothers claimed their children developed kidney complications after being vaccinated against diphtheria.
Their claims, broadcast on local radio, quickly circulated. “These allegations have thrown a spanner in the works as many people are now skeptical of the diphtheria vaccine and we need to increase awareness,” Ali-Suwaid warned.
Distrust of vaccines is not new.
The state suspended polio vaccination for 13 months between 2003 and 2004, following rumors that the polio vaccine contained substances that could make girls sterile, as part of a Western plot to to depopulate Africa.
This suspension had made Kano the epicenter of transmission to other parts of the world that were previously polio-free.
Although authorities have since resumed polio vaccination, suspicions about the safety of the vaccines persist.