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Coping with harmattan–related diseases

By Stanley Akpunonu and Adaku Onyenucheya
19 December 2019   |   4:21 am
As Nigerians welcome the Harmattan season, there are warnings of its harsh weather conditions associated with infectious diseases and other ailments.


As Nigerians welcome the Harmattan season, there are warnings of its harsh weather conditions associated with infectious diseases and other ailments.

The Harmattan is a season experienced in the West African subcontinent that occurs between the end of November and the middle of March every year. It is characterised by dry and dusty northeasterly trade wind, which blows from the Sahara Desert over West Africa into the Gulf of Guinea. Most parts experience cold, while some places can be hot, depending on circumstances.

Findings show that during Harmattan, the humidity level drops to as low as 15 per cent, which can result in spontaneous nose bleeds for some people, both children and adults, with other health effects on humans to include conditions of the skin, eyes, and respiratory system, including aggravation of asthma.

The weather is also associated with frequent headaches, cough, cold, sore throat, sneezing, wet eyes, catarrh and general nasal tract disorder causing great discomfort, as well leads to poor visibility for drivers and pilots.

Other mild challenges experienced during the Harmattan are cracking or breaking of lips, sole of the feet, conjunctivitis (Apollo), dry skin and others.

However, according to a study published in the journal Environ Health Insights, the cold dusty Harmattan is a season of anguish for cardiologists and patients, as it aggravates and worsens the outcome of blood pressure, stroke, hypertension, heart failure and other cardiovascular diseases.

Several studies have shown that the dry, cold and dusty wind associated with the Harmattan weather can also lead to more complicated diseases like rheumatism, arthritis and even death from hypothermia, as a result of the respiratory system which suffers greatly when the body is exposed to cold and dry weather. It can also triggers crises in sickle cell patients.

Earlier this year 2019, the Nigerian Meteorological Agency (NIMET) had warned that Harmattan dust in the months of December to mid-March would likely increase the incidences of respiratory diseases, such as, asthma, bronchitis, flu silicosis and lung cancer.

Meanwhile, researchers noted that in low temperatures, the respiratory tract is dried of mucus and the bare epithelium loses its first line of defense. There is a proneness to infections primarily viral, which increases platelet stickiness, thrombus formation, and hypercoagulability of the blood due to cytokines and other inflammatory factors elaborated.

These increase morbidity and mortality. In people with chronic bronchitis, the acute exacerbations caused by infections acutely upset the pulmonary vascular hemodynamics, placing a heavy burden on the heart.

There is also a worsening of the airway disease with significant background low-grade inflammation, which accelerates atherosclerosis, increasing risk of MI, sudden cardiac death, and CVA.

Again in cold weather, the lipid profile becomes atherogenic (tending to promote the formation of fatty deposits in the arteries) also increasing atherosclerosis. Heating needs during the cold season usually lead to people trying to manipulate indoor climate conditions.

This results in seasonal blood pressure and cardiovascular disease (CVD) morbidity and mortality being attenuated if not completely abolished.

Speaking on the micro-organisms associated with the infectious diseases, the Senior Registrar Department of Medical Microbiology, Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), Dr. Amusan Rebecca, said there are some organisms that thrive because of the temperature, which are the Streptococcus pneumonia and Klebsiella pneumoniae, most of which causes upper respiratory tract infections during the Harmattan season.

“Also it depends on the load of that infection, because organisms like Microbacterium tuberculosis can spread through droplets. If someone that has the infection coughs, the wind carries the droplets, which contains the organisms from one place to the other,” she said.

She said Bacteria Conjunctivitis affects one or both eyes and usually produces a thick eye discharge or pus, with read colouration causing severe pains.

“It is usually transmitted by contact and it tends to be more during the harmattan season.

You come in contact with the carriers of the bacteria you will also contact it. For those that have the bacteria, they should get urgent treatment and in most cases they should cover their eyes with glasses, this is to prevent other people from getting the bacteria. The carries should get treatment on time until it clears off their eyes.

Rebecca maintained that, most organisms that are inhaled through the dry and dusty air causes infection when the human body is not immune-suppressed, that is, when the body immunity is low.

She advised that people should eat food, take enough vitamins, and make sure their body is healthy to prevent any form of infection.

The Senior Registrar, Department of Preventive Dentistry, LUTH, Ekowmenhenhen Uyi Idah said there are lots of common airborne diseases due to the harsh weather condition, which causes upper respiratory tract infections, like the common cold, conjunctivitis, and a couple of other conditions.

Proffering solutions for Nigerians to stay safe from these infectious diseases, Idah said, “The onus is on all individuals to always ensure they maintain proper hygiene, keep their environment as clean as possible; maintain the best hygienic practices, ensure that when we cough we cover our mouths, use protective equipment as much as possible, and try to avoid infecting other people.

He continued, “When you have common cold isolate yourself for few days so that you do not spread the infection. Generally keep your environment clean, maintain self/personal hygiene. Clear your bushes and clean your drainage.”

On measures to take when down with any ailment, Idah said, “When you come down with the infection it is always best to avoid self-medication because you run the risk of actually compounding or complicating the conditions sometimes. It is best you seek medical advice; make sure you consult a qualified medical practitioner who would access you if need be, carry out proper investigations, prescribe drugs for you and then follow you up.”

On her part, Dr. Jimoh Bilikis, House Officer in Dentistry Department, LUTH, said, “Because there would be a lot of cold during the Harmattan season, the best things is to wear thick clothing that covers the neck region, arms and wear socks to cover the legs. If the cold is severe wear headgear or caps that cover the ears to prevent infection, because the cold weather can irritate the ear, which causes pains and sensitivity. Also avoid taking any cold drink because you can come down with cough and some infections like the upper respiratory tract infections.

She continued, “It is just keeping yourself warm, take more of warm beverages and drinks, avoid staying outside for long, stay indoors and take vitamin C supplements, eat a lot of fruits so that your immune system is optimum and you do not come down with any risk.”

On the dental implication of the cold season, Bilikis said, “Because of the cold weather, if someone has sensitive teeth, as a result of the enamel layer been washed off due to bad tooth brushing techniques and other practices, it is best for them to see their dentist on time to treat this thing, because anything cold can cause sensitivity, which can be severe and very painful at times and uncomfortable.”

Speaking on measures to protect the lips from cracking, she said, “Use lip balm, apply Vaseline, just make sure there is moisture on your lips, so that it does not cause dryness which causes the lips to crack or break.”