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Coping with health hazards of harmattan haze

By Emeka Anuforo and Lilian Chukwu
19 January 2015   |   11:00 pm
IT is that time of the year.  The signs are everywhere:  dry skin (because of obvious loss of moisture), cracked lips, sole of the feet and even the skin itself.  Some cracks even become ulcerated.    The rooms become unusually cold, people dive under the cover of otherwise neglected warm duvets. Indeed, duvet referred to…

SIDIIT is that time of the year.  The signs are everywhere:  dry skin (because of obvious loss of moisture), cracked lips, sole of the feet and even the skin itself.  Some cracks even become ulcerated. 

  The rooms become unusually cold, people dive under the cover of otherwise neglected warm duvets. Indeed, duvet referred to as comforter in American English, become a much sought after commodity. While the season lasts, couples are ‘inspired’ to cling more closely together, cuddling like new newborns at nights.

Yes, it is the harmattan season. It is the season that has become a way of life in Nigeria

  Described as 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. 

  The effects of harmattan are various, and mainly negative.

 President of the Association of Resident Doctors at the University of Benin Teaching Hospital, Dr Kingsley Okafor, in an interview with The Guardian highlights some of the medical implications of harmattan.

 His words: “Harmattan has very far reaching medical implications because it is a dry and dusty wind blowing northeast and west off the Sahara into the Gulf of Guinea especially  between November and March.  It consists of fine dust particles between 0.5 and 10 micrometres.

 It is a natural hazard that affects all exposed surfaces of humans like skin, the eyes, nose, mouth and the respiratory tract which directly communicate with the atmosphere.

   “Infants, children and the elderly are more vulnerable to hypothermia (core body temperature below 35 degrees centigrade) due to sub optimal temperature regulating mechanism.  

 The eyes are exposed to the dust particles carried by the dry, cold and dusty wind leading to itching, redness, and foreign body sensation. Allergic eye diseases are also common.”

  Harmattan, he continued, also has harmful effects on the respiratory system. This, he added, is because this system communicates directly with the atmosphere.

  “The dust particles may overwhelm the system and predispose it to infection. It is common place to experience excessive sneezing, cough, catarrh and even nasal bleeding. Individuals with pre existing chronic chest infection like asthma should take special precaution to reduce exposure to the dusty atmosphere in addition to having their inhaler with them all the time,” he stressed.

  Also, a Senior Consultant, Ear, Nose and Throat, National Hospital, Dr. Nse Obong Undie said the ear, nose and throat are the first line of receivers. 

  He said “The nose is at the fore front, it’s the first organ that takes in air that we breath, before the air gets to the throat and then to the lungs. So the nose is at the receiving end. So when the weather changes, and there is this dry humid air coming in with lots of dust and haze, you find out that the nose has to adjust itself, it works like the air-conditioning system in the nose and sinuses. They warm the air before it’s transported to the lungs just to make it feel comfortable and they also feel tight.

“  You notice that in harmattan season, there is a lot more solids in the air because of the dust, so the air is heavier, more irritating to the nose. The inner of the nose is very soft and delicate just like a blanket and the nose produces this mucus that makes it a lot more comfortable so when there is a lot more dust, that blanket is almost overcome. The nose, in a way to protect itself, of reacts to it, and in some people this is excess. And that is what we call allergy.

  “Allergy is a special disease in which the body tries to fight the alien things coming in. You have the dust, pollen and the hay fever because there is a lot of hay. You know at this time they are making hay when the sun is out and there is a lot of dry grass, that’s the hay. But here, we have a lot of pollen and flowers especially in a city like Abuja.

  “So there is a lot of pollen in the air, a lot of grass, the body reacts to it, that over-raection is actually an Immuno Globin E hypersensitive, type one mediated reaction”.

   The Consultant said it can affect the nose, skin, lungs, but that of the nose comes with lots of sneezing and watery discharge . When it is so much, you find some people sneezing a lot and that can also lead to a lot more crust in the nose. Crust is this dry cap that we have inside the nose. Some people tend to pick their nose but they will form again. 

  “In time like this (harmattan season) the advise will be that people should try to limit their exposure to dust. How do you do this? Like in a house that have curtains, you can wash them, like drape curtains, some people can hang drape for years and they will not was it to limit the amount of accumulated dust.

  “Air-conditioners should also be serviced to avoid harmattan induced symptoms. Wipe windows, fans with wet rags. You cannot really control the dust on the street but you can control the ones around your environment. Do away with (fluffy) carpets especially for those that have allergy. A better alternative is the rubber carpets or floor tiles, marbles, granites.

  “Another thing that can help is steam inhalation. Just boil water, cover your head. The water doesn’t have to be at boiling point to avoid face burns. The moisture will help to sooth the nose, sinuses as well as the lungs. De-porizers are modern alternatives to this hot water solution.

  The consultant stated further that harmattan also worsens conditions like the sore throat, the dry air taken irritates the throat adding that “Some people that have allergy (and it worsens) as the voice changes and becomes very croaky. As for such people it could go further and they have asthmatic attack because that dry air when it gets to the lungs it starts a chain reaction. Some children at this time also have a lot of asthma.When the symptoms persist you need to visit a doctor. There are some local steroids that can be taken but a doctor will determine some specialized steroids.” 

  Undie noted that “another condition that can be brought about by the harmattan period is nose bleeding because of dry mucus lining of the nose and a lot of nose picking. Sometimes it is some blood vessels that are injured and the person will start bleeding. And with violent sneezing, you see some people coming down with nose bleeding, for such people they need to get to the doctor very fast. It is not something you can manage at home.

  Home remedies: some people say you close your nose and raise it up, No, it’s even dangerous because you won’t know exactly what is bleeding in the nose. It’s not every bleeding that’s unaccounted for, sometimes it’s even tumor.

  Picking nose is dirty, unsightly and it’s not just good some people need a doctor’s help to remove the crust formed in the nose.

  Although Vitamin C as a remedy is recommended for healing process, in the prevention of catarrh, it’s not really proven. It’s a very controversial debate. It’s good for scurvy. too much of Vitamin C without adequate intake of water can lead to kidney stone..

   Okafor, who is a public health expert, noted: “Public Health authorities are also aware that the epidemic of meningococcal meningitis usually experienced between February to May in the ‘meningitis belt’ and some parts of Nigeria. Thus, routine immunizations should be in top gear especially around this period.

“  The harmattan also triggers sickle cell crisis in those with sickle cell anaemia.  Oxygen in blood is usually reduced in extremes of temperatures, like cold. Thus, patients with Sickle cell anaemia should be take precaution and keep warm as much as possible to prevent a crisis.

   “The harmattan season also leads to road traffic accidents as visibility can be a problem. The harmattan haze can cause poor visibility, thus motorists are advised to use head lamps, hazard lights and be cautious in driving. Also, Air travels are at risk during this period. The Aviation authorities should give the green light for travels only when it is safe and visibility is adequate.

  We should also be weary of fire incidents during this period.”He called for increased health education and enlightenment of the public on the health hazards of the harmattan. He highlighted some measures to remain of sound health during the period.

  His words: “Prompt treatment of respiratory symptoms like cough, catarrh, and others is important. The skin can be kept healthy by skin application of oily creams, lubricants to keep it moist and protected. Wearing weather friendly dressing is advised. Citizens at this time should seek means of keeping warm especially by putting on warm clothing. This may be the best time to explore the cultural advantage of wearing ‘Baban Riga’, long sleeved clothing and suits.

   “Proper eye hygiene and care in form of washing with clean water reduce exposure to dust and use of protective spectacles is encouraged during this period. Fruits, meat and vegetables should be properly cleaned because of the dusty atmosphere, especially among food vendors to reduce the chances of food borne diseases like food poisoning, dysentery, and diarrhoea diseases.

  Visit the nearest health facility for proper treatment, if symptoms persist.”

  The harmattan season is also the time for fire outbreaks.  The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) has also called for caution about the use of firewood or other smouldering objects and heating materials. Where such cannot be avoided, the fire is to be put out immediately after use.

  A NEMA fact sheet also alerted to the danger of warming rooms with burning charcoals during harmattan, warning that exposure of children, and other vulnerable people to harsh weather could cause pneumonia, asthmatic and sickle cell anaemia attacks.

  But like a bittersweet pill, harmattan is not entirely a negative season.  During harmattan period, faces are smooth and acne free?  Ladies can now use as much make up as they without the heat melting it down their faces.

  The weather doest also seem favorable for mosquitoes to breed, so malaria cases are reduced remarkably.

   Days ago, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) alerted pilots to hazards associated with harmattan dust haze in flight operations.

  In line with the Seasonal Rainfall Prediction issued by NIMET on the cessation of the rainy season in 2014, NCAA urged pilots to obtain adequate departure, en route and destination weather information and briefing from the Nigerian Meteorological Agency (NIMET) prior to flight operations at all airports.

  Additionally, pilots have been urged to exercise maximum restraint on observation of strong surface wind, fog or harmattan haze. Where visibility falls below the prescribed weather minimal, NCAA said flight operations are likely to be delayed, diverted or outrightly cancelled.