Monrovia – Over 1,700 people in six counties have been confirmed infected with a skin disease that appears to be showing the signs and symptoms of scabies, the National Public Health Institute of Liberia (NPHIL) says.
There has been no mortality, but the public health concern of the situation now points to discrimination of affected people, NPHIL told FrontPageAfrica.
Concerns over timely intervention by the health sector to treat patients and sensitize the public about the prevention of the “rare skin disease” are increasing as speculations of its cause also heighten.
The new figure shows a sharp increase in the number of reported cases.
On Thursday, January 4, NPHIL reported that 631 people from four counties were infected with the disease and that it was investigating more cases.
The ministry of health is yet to declare the current health situation as an outbreak or a national emergency despite a surge in the number of cases reported so far from across the country.
“The surveillance officers continue to search and up to yesterday (Sunday, January 7) we had 1,777 cases coming from six counties,” said Dr. Ralph Jetoh, deputy director for the division of infectious disease ad epidemiology at NPHL.
Grand Bassa, Nimba, Bong, Margibi, and Rivercess Counties as well as rural and urban Montserrado Counties are reporting the most cases.
Investigation is continuing with active case finding to see how best to manage and deal with the cases, Dr. Jetoh added.
The disease, which is very contagious, has “high possibilities of spreading,” several top health experts investigating and mapping the virus in the country said.
Health authorities in Liberia have expressed uncertainty over the specific type of skin disease but said the signs and symptoms patients are showing point to scabies.
“Although it is not 100 percent confirmed as scabies but that’s a working diagnosis, so ongoing investigation continues on the field,” Dr. Jetoh told FrontPage Africa on Monday, January 10.
Patients are complaining that the disease causes uncontrollable itching on their skin and constrains them to keep scratching even in the public.
Previous laboratory tests did not confirm the disease as scabies, but Liberia’s chief medical officer, Dr. Francis Kateh told FrontPage Africa the disease has all the characters of scabies.
“For now, based on what we have seen, it is more of scabies that is occurring,” he said, adding; “The disease is more related to hygiene,” and asked people to clean their environment in order to prevent it from spreading.
It can be transmitted by direct skin-to-skin contact and causes severe and relentless itching.
Medical experts say sexual contact is the most common form of transmission among sexually active young people and it has also been considered by many to be a sexually transmitted disease (STD), although not all cases are transmitted sexually.
“There are still new cases, and the number that you get are those (who) presented themselves to the clinic or through another means but there could be people in rural areas that we may not have seen yet so the number could be fluctuating,” said Dr. Kateh.
As the number of cases tripled in less than a week, there are uncertainties over the treatment of infected people in rural communities where access to health care is scarce.
“We are carrying out active case findings, we’re mapping some of the hot spots and counties to make sure that we intervene and we have preventive measures that the population needs to know about,” added Tolbert Nyenswah, director of NPHIL.
NPHIL says there’s a treatment package or guidelines that have been prepared for patients and will be distributed in communities that are affected, but did not detail how patients can seek such treatment.
Cleaning or scratching the infected part of the body turns to sore, and becomes a secondary infection, says Dr. Kateh.
The chief medical officer said the first-hand treatment for the disease includes “Caliber lotion and Whitfield ointment” amongst others, which cannot heal the sore, therefore; “patients would need antibiotics to heal the infection”.
He encouraged patients to “clean the infected part of their body” and apply prescribed ointments.
However, there are also speculations that the disease is an aftermath of the Ebola virus as some describe it as “Be serious” to its itching sensation or “Ebola fanfan” - fanfan is a broken rice, which they say represents the small bumps that appeared on the surface of the skin.
Health authorities have refuted the rumor and said the challenge now is to “dispel the rumor” and adequately inform the public.
They say it was wrong for individuals to compare a rash related disease with a very violent hemorrhagic virus like Ebola.
And Mr. Nyenswah said NPHIL is running radio talk shows to sensitize the public, at the same time relying on the health promotion division at the ministry of health to embark on more messaging to the public about the disease.
At the same time, sources have hinted that a team of doctors with a charity based in Europe is preparing to visit the country to render free medical treatment to infected patients.
FrontPage Africa has not independently verified the reports.
Liberia’s chief medical officer could not also confirm the information when he was contacted.
He said it was the Liberia medical and dental council that has the authority to sanction the visit of a foreign medical team to the country.