December 10, 2023
Vinikilang Hayin Gada along, Mudi-Yola Road, jimeta, Adamawa State, Nigeria
Health

Of toxic geckos and marauding mosquitoes

The screaming headline says, “Wall gecko wipes out family of six in Ogun State”, with content that betrays lazy or sensationalist journalistic work. A family of six was found dead in the morning, and the only evidence that links their death to a poisonous wall gecko is the sighting of ‘a dead wall gecko inside a pot of soup by one of the neighbours?’ Interesting.

The major effect the story had on society was in setting off the panic button. The social media went haywire. All sorts of armchair pundits concocted evidence to support the assertion that wall geckos are poisonous. Others suggested ways of getting rid of the reptile. “Avoid death; get rid of wall gecko in your home now”, warned a Facebook post. In something that could be described as mass hysteria, online commentators searched for solutions. Indeed, there were many of them, ranging from the practical to the bizarre – someone actually said geckos were evil agents sent from witches from afar. The most recurring recipe was the one that advised readers to chase away gecko by sprinkling a mixture of garlic and salt at all corners of the house.

Meanwhile, a peripheral fact-check indicates otherwise. The common house gecko, also known as Asian house gecko, Pacific house gecko, wall gecko, house lizard, tayoto, chipkali or moon lizard – with zoological name hemidactylus frenatus – is “non-venomous and not harmful to humans.” In any case, even experts weighed in on the matter. A zoology and environmental biology lecturer at the University of Nigeria, Eugene Onah, told AfricaCheck.org, the fact-checking non-profit, that the wall gecko was not poisonous.

He said, “One wouldn’t automatically die just because a wall gecko fell into the food one is eating. However, because the wall gecko carries a lot of bacteria in its mouth, the tendency of one getting infected from the bacteria is high. Also, some of the bacteria multiply within a short time which can cause serious harm in one’s body within a short while.”

According to Animal Diversity Web, a database run by the University of Michigan in the United States stated that “geckos are non-venomous and harmless to humans.” Also, an invasive animal risk assessment by the Australian Department of Agriculture and Fisheries also said the wall gecko “does not present a threat to human safety.”

Nevertheless, nothing should be left to chance or conjecture when it comes to the unexplained death of Nigerian citizens. Hence, a thorough forensic examination should be carried out to ascertain the true cause of death of the Ogun family of six. A wall gecko lying dead in the pots is too convenient and shallow a tale for professional investigation. What if the gecko was also a victim of whatever that killed the entire family in a single night?

But before we get carried away by the wall gecko scare, let us go back to the real threat to our society. A new malaria vector, known as Anopheles stephensi, has invaded our shores. It has the potential to do damage to our country because it is more rugged than the mosquito specie we are used to, Anopheles arabiensis.

It is not as if we are not having a bad day already. As a matter of fact, malaria is one of the leading causes of death in Nigeria. According to the 2020 World Malaria Report, Nigeria accounts for 27 per cent of malaria cases globally and 23 per cent of deaths from the disease. 30 per cent of admissions to the nation’s hospitals are as a result of malaria. As for the economic impact, the World Health Organization said malaria was responsible for an annual reduction of 1.3 per cent in Africa’s economic growth. In a statement to commemorate the 2021 World Malaria Day, the World Health Organization Regional Director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, said for every year that malaria spread, health and development suffer the most. For Nigeria, malaria-related absenteeism and productivity losses cost Nigeria an estimated $1.1bn every year.

The situation is that there are more than 3,000 types of mosquitoes, each with its own habit. Some bite people, some prefer cows, some live in forests, others prefer cities, some cause itching and irritation, while some carry deadly diseases. While Aedes mosquitoes transmit viral diseases, Anopheles mosquitoes transmit malaria. Of the 500 Anopheles species, only 30-40 can spread malaria. Common species that transmit malaria in Africa are An. gambiae, An. Arabiensis and An. Funestus.

In 2012, routine public health tracking activities first detected that a mosquito species called An. stephensi has found its way from its native habitat in Southern Asia to Eastern Africa. Initially spotted in Djibouti, it has since been identified in neighbouring Ethiopia (2016), Sudan (2019), and Somalia (2019).

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, unlike some of its cousins, An. stephensi is an urban vector. It thrives in man-made habitats, where its eggs are laid in water storage containers and wells. It is also known to actively enter houses. They are difficult to control because they lay eggs in any available water source and their eggs can survive being dry for a long period of time. In addition, the vector feeds on its vertebrate host, both indoors and outdoors, and this reduces the impact of commonly used vector control methods such as insecticide-treated nets and indoor residual spraying.

It has been reported that since the discovery of An. stephensi in Djibouti, there has been a startling increase in urban malaria cases. Researchers note that the simultaneous emergence of An. stephensi and the rise in urban malaria cases raises the possibility that the newly introduced species is responsible for increased malaria transmission.

The spread was relatively swift. In 2019, the WHO released a threat notice highlighting the spread of An. stephensi in the Horn of Africa, and warned public health authorities to be vigilant. But barely two years later, the vector has found its way into West Africa. By the middle of 2022, the Director-General of the Nigeria Institute of Medical Research, Prof Babatunde Salako, announced that the mosquito is now in northern Nigeria, admitting that the An. stepehnsi is a rugged vector that is ‘very difficult to eradicate.’

With 90 per cent of the world’s malaria deaths in Africa, there is no gainsaying the fact that the spread of the new mosquito species poses a significant problem to a continent already heavily burdened by malaria. More so, that the vector is urban-friendly, now that 42.5 per cent of Africa’s population live in urban areas; even with an unrelenting rural-to-urban migration ongoing in major cities like Abuja, Port Harcourt, Kano and Lagos.

This is why the Nigerian government must see this mosquito invasion as a national emergency. When it was announced earlier in the year, the government sounded as if it was just a northern Nigerian challenge. However, the introduction of any new mosquito into any part of Nigeria should be a concern because every part of the country is already infested with malaria and its vector. So, the government at all levels should immediately activate surveillance efforts across all the urban centres in the nation to enable early detection and control. Environmental health officers should also run awareness campaigns to encourage communities to reduce potential breeding sites.

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