• Prepares against imminent epidemic outbreak

From Fred Ezeh, Abuja

The Federal Ministry of health said on Friday that it is deeply concerned about the increasing human interactions with fruit bats which have proven to be major reservoirs for various diseases.

The government said the increasing interest of humans particularly people from Benue and neighbouring states portend a serious danger to the health of other Nigerians.

Coordinating Minister of Health and Social Development, Prof. Muhammad Ali Pate, alongside other stakeholders in the health sector raised the concerns in Abuja, on Friday, during a meeting of members of National One Health Steering Committee, which provides a leadership for the early prevention and resolution of the public health crisis using a One Health approach.

The Minister said the initiative of the One Health Steering Committee and Joint Risk Assessment, was in response to a recent call for action following public health concerns and safety in Benue State following the outcome of research on fruit bats and the risk of spillover of zoonotic diseases.

He said the objectives of the meeting was to strengthen discussions on the potential spillover of zoonotic diseases from fruit bats, and efforts to protect the health and well-being of Nigerians; and also provide policy advice on research conducted on One Health priority pathogens; and in addition to that, strengthen efforts to implement One Health in Nigeria.

Head, Surveillance and Epidemiology Department, Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), Dr. Oyeladun Okunromade, in a presentation, highlighted the dangers that accompany the increasing human interactions with fruit bats.

She disclosed that fruit bats are reservoirs of many infectious agents, including parasites, bacteria, viruses, and fungi, stressing that epidemiology of infectious diseases in bats is yet to be well understood, but it’s confirmed that fruit bats can transmit numerous infectious agents, and are reservoirs for emerging pathogens.

She said a 2023 serosurvey in Makurdi Benue state revealed that fruit Bats were found to have neutralising antibodies against Nipah, Ebola, Influenza (H17N10) and Henipavirus, which are major zoonotic diseases of pandemic potential.

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She added: “Also, human activities such as capturing, handling and preparing these bats for human consumption suggest a potential for direct exposure to bat bodily fluids, thereby elevating the risk of cross species transmission of the viruses and other pathogens.

“Undoubtedly, human settlements are encroaching into areas known to harbour large fruit bat colonies, especially in areas known for bat roosting. Evidently, the risk of zoonotic spillover will continue to increase in these locations.

“Consequently, virus from these fruit bats can spread from person to person, potentially affecting many people. Unfortunately, some communities in Nigeria feed on some of these bats, and in some cases, they are delicacies for merriment”.

She said the joint risk assessment team had recommended a mapping of all states that are involved in bat hunting, handling, processing and consumption of fruit bats; conducting a serological studies in these selected locations (mapped states) on bats and target groups; as well as massive awareness creation campaign on dangers posed by bats.

In addition to that, there was recommendation for more research that reflects the actual epidemiology of the viruses and mitigation of the risk of potential spillover of pathogenic viruses to humans, and continuous surveillance in bats and humans (human-animal interface).

Meanwhile, Dr. Clement Meseko of the National Veterinary Research Institute (NNVI), Vom, Plateau State, commended the government for supporting the One Health Steering Committee, particularly its actions and research on human interactions with fruit bats.

He appreciated the fact the relevant stakeholders were involved in the research and risk assessment, which made it easier to understand and formulate action plans, with the support of the Federal Ministry of Health, against the disease.

He highlighted the imminent public health danger as a result of the increasing activities of humans and fruit bats, and appreciated the promise of the Minister to present the matter alongside others to the global community in order to access the Global Fund for Pandemic, that would be used to respond to such public health challenges.