Attempts by the Ogun State Government to prevent cholera from killing schoolchildren in the state have boomeranged after it went awry.
An exercise initiated to deworm no fewer than 700,000 schoolchildren in 14 local government areas of the state this year has allegedly taken the lives of two pupils who were given deworming tablets. Omolaso Keyede, eight and Eniola Oyeyemi, nine, who were primary four pupils of St James African Church Nursery and Primary School, Idi-Ape, Abeokuta, died on Wednesday morning after vomiting and passing watery stools for hours.
The exercise commenced on Tuesday, November 17, 2020 in affected primary and secondary schools in the state and was scheduled to last for one week but it has already sent pain and sorrow to the families of Keyede and Oyeyemi, and who knows what tragedy lurks in the 14 local governments for other parents by the time the exercise would be over.
The death of the children has shattered their parents and left them distraught. Tears flowed freely from their eyes as our correspondent attempted to talk to them. It seemed that as relations and other sympathisers tried to console them, they sobbed heart-rending tears to a greater degree.
It was gathered that the deceased girls were mandated to take the deworming tablets in school on Tuesday and then fell ill in the evening. One of them was taken to a private hospital in Odo-Oyo, Abeokuta, that evening but she died around 3am on Wednesday – the following day.
The second pupil was also taken to the same hospital later but was declared dead on arrival. The development angered some parents who besieged the residences of the bereaved parents to sympathise with them.
Both families accused the government of killing their children prematurely.
The mother of nine-year-old Eniola, Kehinde Oyeyemi, said, “On Tuesday, she was told to come to the school with Eba because they wanted to deworm them. She ate Eba at home and went to the school with another plate of Eba. When she got back home, she was vomiting. She said she started vomiting in school after she was given deworming tablets.
“She said she vomited the drugs and the teacher gave her another (dose) to take. She complained that she had a stomach ache. She died early Wednesday morning and was foaming in the mouth.”
Like the Oyeyemis, the Keyedes are still making futile efforts to come to terms with the fact that they have lost nine-year-old Omolaso forever, even though she was reportedly hale and hearty when she left for school that tragic morning.
An aunt of the late eight-year-old Omolaso, Mrs Oluwatosin Nasiru, said the school management had been warned not to give the medication to the little girl, yet they went ahead. With sad eyes and in a quavering voice, Nasiru told the chilling story of how Omolaso was forced by an unnamed teacher to take the deworming drug despite putting up a strong resistance.
According to her, it didn’t take long after school hours for Omolaso to start reacting badly to the drug before she eventually died. She was taken to the hospital that evening but she died the following morning.
“We all know that such drugs react differently on individuals. So, I had warned that they should not administer the medication to my niece. We also sent someone to the school to tell them that they should not administer the drug to her. Some of us who are parents know how the drug reacts on pupils. It happened last year so because of that, we had warned against it.
“She (Omolaso) said she resisted but the teacher beat her and forced her to take the drug. She vomited the tablets and the teacher forced her to take the drugs the second time,” Nasiru said in anger and with a palpable sense of loss.
She, however, added that the family had refused to allow government officials to exhume Omolaso’s body, saying “it does not make any sense”.
Omolaso’s grandmother, Fatimah Onanuga, noted that the deworming tablets given to Omolaso led to the complications that killed her.
“It was a sad day for the family. She was fine before she was given the deworming tablets so we know that was what killed her,” she said with a note of sadness.
She continued: “She was not ill at all; she ate and went to school. She said she wanted to eat yam and egg. They gave her the drug on Tuesday; she attended the afternoon session that Tuesday. When she came back home, she went to the bakery where I take supplies but I noticed that she did not look like she was well. Suddenly she started vomiting and when I asked her what happened, she said she was given one and half doses of deworming tablets.
“I became worried because of her age and the high dosage given to her. Was it not too much for her age? I took her home and was advised to give her palm oil. I did so and the vomiting stopped.
“I put the bread I bought at the bakery somewhere but she insisted that we should go out to sell the bread. She followed me to the stall and stayed with me till 11pm when we went back home. On our way home, she started vomiting again and passing stool.
“I was afraid because it was late and there was no one at home to help me. I thought I would take her to the hospital in the morning but I could not sleep. I monitored her till around 3am but I was not comfortable with her health condition. In the morning, I took her to a private clinic but she was rejected there. They asked me questions at the gate to know what was wrong with her and I told them she was vomiting and passing watery stools. They said they could not admit her. I had to take her from the place to Ijaiye hospital but we did not get public transport on time. At Itoku, I got a motorcyclist who took me to the general hospital. She was tested and they said she was brought in dead. I had been taking care of her since she was an infant. Her father did not bother about her. What will I tell her father? I was just her guardian.”
On whether she was given contaminated water, Onanuga said, “I did not give her well water. I usually buy sachet water. I never gave her well water. We used the water to cook.”
Findings have shown that past deworming exercises in the state were also rife with controversies and reports of death, so the Keyedes and Oyeyemis were probably not the first victims.
For instance, similar tragic stories were reported last year when an unconfirmed number of schoolchildren were said to have died while some others were hospitalised during the exercise. In 2019, the state government had planned to deworm over 800,000 schoolchildren across 10 local government areas of the state. Schoolchildren in 4,900 schools across the designated local government areas were targeted during the exercise.
Also in 2017, when there was a similar exercise, some schoolchildren were said to have died while some others were hospitalised after taking deworming drugs. Indeed, there was confusion in some public primary and secondary schools in the state over the administration of the deworming tablets that year as some pupils reportedly collapsed in the course of being administered the drugs.
Rumours of mass deaths spread like wildfire across the state, forcing many parents to storm various schools to withdraw their wards.
According to the World Health Organisation, worms have negative effects on the mental and physical development of children. Children with worms are often underweight and have stunted growth. The organisation noted that heavy infections often make children too sick or too tired to concentrate at or even attend school.
But findings have shown that many parents in the state have reservations regarding the annual exercise because of its consequences.
Some other parents, who spoke with our correspondent on condition of anonymity, said they had warned their wards and children against taking the drugs.
Meanwhile, the Keyedes and Oyeyemis are still reeling in shock at how such tragedies should befall them. Both families live in the same compound while their late children attended the same school.
A team from the state Ministry of Health, led by the Director of Public Health, Dr Festus Soyinka, visited the victims’ families to assess the situation. One of the victims, Omolayo, had already been buried and her family resisted pressure to exhume her body for possible autopsy. The government team, however, had access to the remains of Eniola.
Soyinka, who dismissed speculations that the pupils were killed as a result of the deworming drugs administered to them, argued that it was given to over 200 pupils in the same school, but only the two pupils from the same neighborhood were affected.
Soyinka said, “There was a rumour about a child that died. On getting there, we learnt that two children died. One had been buried before we got there, we could only see the grave site. The relations did not allow us to exhume the body.
“The reason why we wanted to exhume the body was because we took a pathologist and doctors there to see if there would be a need to do autopsies but on gross examination of the remains of the child we had access to, we discovered that the child had lost a lot of water which would not happen from just vomiting.
“The history that the grandmother presented to us was that the child came back vomiting. How many times did she vomit, she could not volunteer that information, but it looks to me as if it was several times.
“Now, even if you are going to vomit because of such drugs, it will be due to irritation of the system, it will not be continuous vomiting that will lead to dehydration. So, that already made us suspicious.
“The two children concerned were living in the same compound and no other person from the same school was affected. About 235 students were given the same drugs on Tuesday and no other person reported any challenge with taking the drugs.
“But for you to find two children in the same location (dying), we should look for something else which could be transmittable and infectious; that is why we are trying to look for the cause of death. For the child that has not been buried, we discovered sunken eyeballs, dried skin and loss of turgidity which shows loss of water.
“On getting to the hospital, we were able to confirm that the child had a history of diarrhoea and vomiting. While the child was with them here (in the school), there were five episodes of diarrhoea. Appearance of the watery stool looks much like that of cholera which is one of the causes of gastrointestinal disorders that kill fast.
“The second child was taken to the hospital late and according to them, they had lost the child before they took her there. That was why the hospital could not accept the child because she was brought in dead.”
Soyinka, however, ruled out any hope that the exercise would be suspended.
The Keyedes and Oyeyemis had dismissed allegations by the state government that the well within their compound, believed to be their source of water, might be contaminated and probably responsible for the ailment that took the lives of their girls.
Nasiru said, “What has the well got to do with the death? She drank sachet water. We don’t use well water. With all that nonsense the officials are saying, I hope they don’t annoy us because we may take it up against them. If we keep quiet, it does not mean that we are fools. They came here and told us that they also used the drug, are they comparing their immune system with the immune systems of the little girls?
“Let us agree that the two pupils drink from the same well, what about other people who met us at the police station and were also there to complain?
“What about the other pupils that were brought to the hospital? Were they not from another area? Two parents came to the police station to make the same complaints we made about the same school. What nonsense are they saying? What has the well water got to do with this?
“Maybe the drugs that were bought were fake because the girl was eight years old and had a small stature. She told us she was given four tablets at once. You gave her four doses, who does that?
“We have buried her because we could not leave her corpse lying around. The government told us that they wanted to exhume her body, will that wake her up?”
Confirming the deaths earlier, the state Commissioner for Health, Dr Tomi Coker, said the ministry was notified of the deaths of the schoolchildren living in the same compound and attending the same school. She said their death followed an episode of gastroenteritis, suggesting a possible waterborne disease like cholera.
The statement read, “Investigation led by the Ogun State Commissioner for Health along with officials of the Federal Ministry of Health and Abeokuta South Local Government revealed that the children died of severe cases of vomiting and diarrhoea.
“The government in a bid to stop the spread has put in place community sensitisation and advocacy. We have sent cholera alerts to all health facilities in the state and engaged in prepositioning of materials for case management in government hospitals.” (Saturday Punch)