To First Ladies, On Sickle Cell Day

Aisha Buhari

Aisha Buhari

CONGRATULATIONS on your ascension of office as First Lady of Nigeria of your respective state. I am sure each of you knows a thing or two about Sickle Cell Anaemia (SCA). Your country is renowned for having by far the largest population of ‘sicklers’ in the world. Scientific estimates hold that between four and five million Nigerian citizens from every ethnic group have SCA.

SCD is close to skin for virtually every Nigerian family, even the family of First Ladies. Every fourth First Lady carries the Sickle Cell Trait (SCT), the blueprint for producing a child with SCA. And every fourth lady among your distinguished assembly is married to an SCT Excellency!
It is the same with Deputy-Governors and Ministers and permanent secretaries and every government official from federal to local level. It is much the same with the general population:

Every fourth employed or unemployed compatriot, every fourth political or military leader from Balewa to Buhari, every fourth member of the armed forces, every fourth political party functionary or member, every fourth student, every fourth hospital, media or airline personnel, every fourth adherent of any religious practice, every fourth coach or football player, every fourth vice chancellor or rector, every fourth monarch, every fourth prisoner, every fourth MD/CEO of any public or private enterprise, every fourth rural or urban dweller, every fourth hospital in- or out-patient, irrespective of what they are being treated for, every fourth … one could go on and on and on – harbours the SCT, the majority unaware!

No other country is in the grip of any acquired or inherited condition as Nigeria is in the grip of SCD. For a disease that permeates the society so, the neglect of this VIP disease is tantamount to treason.

SCD is the world’s most commonly-inherited blood disorder. Its signs, symptoms and complications have similarities with practically every disease known to humankind. Rare is the family in this country that has not been grilled or is not being grilled by SCA. Nigeria is in a big mess as far as SCD is concerned.
Except for Katsina State during the tenure of the immediate past First Lady, Hajia Fatima Shema, no government at the Federal, State or local level has ever given SCD the concerted and sustained attention it deserves. No political party has ever mentioned SCD in its manifesto. For reasons hard to understand, SCD does not feature in the Millennium Development Goals of the United Nations. ECOWAS and the AU have health and human rights objectives, but SCD education, awareness or prevention is not on the cards!

SCD is classified as a ‘rare disease’ in most countries of the world – perhaps this explains its invisibility in those countries. In Nigeria, the disease is endemic in its trait form (over 40 million Nigerians have the trait unknowing, future parents of SS children). Every ethnic group has folk stories of mysterious infant deaths popularly known as abiku in Yorubaland and ogbanje in Igboland. Yet, health policy makers and almost everyone else high and low in the corridors of power and influence are indifferent to the ravage of SCD past, present and future!

You never hear of SCD on radio or TV as you do HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria. Certainly the focus on communicable diseases is appropriate – indeed anything done to beat down these is an advantage for folks with SCD, in whom vulnerability to infection is high.

• Olajide is Editor, African Sickle Cell News & World Report. He wrote this as an open letter to Nigeria’s first ladies, on World Sickle Cell Day.

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