IT begins with itching. Swelling of the eyes follows. The swollen eyelids tighten up and the children are unable to open their eyes. More than 20 children are having this eye infection in Ruga, a remote settlement around the Abuja City Gate, close to the National Stadium. Some of the affected children have gone blind.
Five days ago, Baratu Ibrahim woke to see her one-year-old Mohammed with a discharge from his right eye. She quickly sent a neighbour to buy eye drops from a nearby patent medicine store which she administered on him. The following day, Mohammed’s eye bulged. She discarded the eye drops.
As the eye drops worsened her child’s eye, Ibrahim switched to another procedure. She dissolved salt into hot water and used a piece of cloth to clean the eye with the warm water. But her effort has resulted in the child’s eye being shut.
“I’m still applying hot water and salt on the eye,” says Ibrahim in Hausa. She lives with her husband and two other children in a shack. She has lived here for five years with her husband who married her from a village in Katsina State. Her surroundings are smelly with dark water streaming from the narrow passages around the shacks.
Ibrahim’s child is one of the many children going blind in the sprawling settlement.
“There are many children with this problem here,” says Mark Okere who has a makeshift learning centre in Ruga. Along with his wife, Chinwe, who is a trained teacher, they had begun the school under a mango tree before putting up a make-do structure to protect the children from the rain.
Okeke’s school is the only form of organised learning in Ruga which has an estimated population of over 5,000 residents. The school has grown to more than 100 hundred pupils but the itchy eye infection is making many of them stay away from the school.
On Monday, when four-year-old Fatima Ibrahim arrives at the school, she is scratching her puffy left eye. She has been absent in the school for some days, Okere says. He adds that about eight other pupils are having the eye infection.
Fatima’s mother, Aisha tells The ICIR that the eye problem started with Fatima before her younger son contracted it too. She has been applying Gentamycin eye drops and Nuru Subah, a black powder concoction, to the affected eyes. But she is dismayed by the worsening eyes of her only children. Her husband died two years ago in a car crash.
“WE DON’T KNOW THE CAUSE”
The extent of the eye infection in Ruga became known when one of the children was taken to Kaduna for eye treatment.
Chika Offor, the founder of Vaccine Network, had gone with her team to the community for an outreach programme where they met two-year-old Buhari Aliyu who is now sightless. She supported Aliyu’s family to take the child to the Federal Medical Centre, Jabi. They were, however, referred to Kaduna.
“It was in Kaduna that they told us that the optic nerves were dead and there was nothing they could do about the child,” Offor tells The ICIR.
When other parents heard that Buhari had returned from Kaduna, they brought their children who have a similar infection to Offor. “We discovered that other children in the community were already blind while others were blind in one eye and others are about going blind,” she says.
“We don’t know what has caused the blindness because we are not doctors,” Offor tells The ICIR.
Buhari’s father, Suleiman, says two of his other younger children have the same eye infection but they have not gone blind. He tells The ICIR that he noticed Buhari’s eye problem when he was one-year-old. Buhari has been taken to various hospitals in Abuja and Zaria in Kaduna State, he says.
Suleiman does not know the cause of the blindness but he believes it is from God. “Allah knows,” says Suleiman in Hausa. He is a labourer and smallholder farmer who comes from Keffi in Nasarawa State. He lives in the shack with his wife and eight children, including Buhari who has become completely blind. Suleiman tells The ICIR that there is no history of blindness in his family.
Usman Abubakar, secretary to the chief of the community, believes that the eye infection is caused by the unhealthy environment. Open defecation is a common practice in the community and many of them fetch water from contaminated sources. They fetch water from the railway drainage and dirty stream because they cannot afford to buy a 25-litre gallon of water for N40 in the private borehole in the community.
So far, Offor has alerted the Primary Health Care Development Agency and Abuja Municipal Area Council about the plight of the children. Last Friday, she sent a letter to the World Health Organisation (WHO). They are yet to intervene.
Before the end of this week, some of the affected children will be taken to Asokoro General Hospital, she says. Until then, she does not know why more than 20 children in Ruga are going blind. But she knows that majority of the affected children are in the Fulani villages by the hilly parts of the community.
Although it has not been clinically confirmed, the infection shows symptoms of trachoma. This infectious eye disease is the leading cause of blindness worldwide, according to WHO. It is caused by infection with the bacterium Chlamydia trachomatis and mostly affect preschool-aged children.
The disease is a public health problem in northern Nigeria, according to International Trachoma Initiative . It is caused mainly by dirty face as well as other water and sanitation related problems.