Harmattan And Your Health

By Murtala Umar, drmmu2000@yahoo.co.uk

Man as a product of the environment, is affected, both negatively and positively, by the later just as the environment is in turn influenced by him. Climate, of all the environmental factors, is the most important, affecting health indirectly through its influence on plants, animals, insects and microbes, and directly by taxing the body’s physiological reserves. Climate chiefly determines the distribution, type and density of vegetation, including crops. It influences the range of animals that can be hunted or tended. It controls the growth and distribution of microbes and insects that may transmit them or may act as pests. Thus wealth, nutrition, education and development, and their interaction with health, depend to a large extent on climate.

Harmattan according to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition.  2000, may have originated from the Arabic word: HARAM, which literally means; the evil thing. This origin may not be unconnected with the adverse effect of this weather especially in the Sahara. The Harmattan is a dry and dusty wind blowing northeast and west off the Sahara into the Gulf of Guinea between November and March (winter). It is considered a Natural Hazard. On its passage over the desert it picks up fine dust particles (between 0.5 and 10 micrometres). When the Harmattan blows hard, it can push dust and sand all the way to South America. In some countries in West Africa, the heavy amount of dust in the air can severely limit visibility and block the sun for several days, comparable to a heavy fog. The effect caused by the dust and sand stirred by these winds is known as the Harmattan Haze, and costs airlines millions in cancelled and diverted flights each year.

The Harmattan, despite its   adverse health effects, is not without some health benefits to man. For example, the low temperature associated with it is unfavourable for breeding of mosquitoes thus reducing the incidence of malaria. The skin, the eyes and the respiratory tract which directly communicate with the atmosphere, the later via the nose and mouth, are most vulnerable to the adverse effects of this weather. The skin is usually dry with accompanying cracking of the lips, sole of the feet and even the skin itself. The body extremities such as the hands and feet are sometimes too cold to generate unpleasant symptoms. Babies and the elderly are particularly prone to hypothermia (core body temperature below 35 degrees centigrade) due to sub optimal temperature regulating mechanism.  The skin can be kept healthy by topical application of oily creams and weather friendly dressing. This is perhaps the best time to explore the cultural advantage of wearing babban riiga and suits, as it pleases one, to keep warm. As we use various means depending on our socioeconomic status to keep our homes warm, extra caution must be taken to prevent fire accidents. The hospitals in the Northern part of this country usually record increase in fire accidents in this period of the year. At this juncture, one would want to call on the Government and all concern citizens to come to the aid of the homeless people, both the mentally ill and the sane whom poverty has made homeless in cities like Lagos and Abuja. The need for shelter cannot be overemphasized at any time talk less of this  cold dusty period.

The eyes are directly exposed to the harsh weather especially the dust particles carried by the wind. Thus itching, foreign body sensation and redness may be common especially in individuals with allergic eye disease. Proper eye hygiene in form of washing with clean water, reduce exposure to dust and protective spectacles, are advocated.

The respiratory system, because of its direct communication with the atmosphere, is heavily and badly affected. The respiratory tract has got a defensive mechanism that stops harmful particles in the air from getting to the lungs. This defense may however be overwhelmed by the concentration of the pollutants in the atmosphere, depending on the health status of a person or owing to a small sized particles that escape  entrapment. The resultant effect is damage to the system predisposing to infection. Excessive sneezing, cough and catarrh are some of the symptoms common to most people. The Harmattan period is not the best of weathers for people with pre existing chronic chest infection. Worthy of mention is Asthma, a chronic (long-term) disease that makes it hard to breathe due inflammatory congestion in the lower respiratory tract. These groups of patients should pay special attention to their health, taking all possible and practicable measures to reduce exposure to the dusty atmosphere in addition to having their inhaler with them all the time. The epidemic of meningococcal meningitis usually experience between February to May in the ‘meningitis belt’, northern Nigeria inclusive, is an aftermath of Harmattan.

The dry, cold and dusty wind associated with Harmattan also triggers sickle cell crises in affected individuals. Sickle cell anaemia to recall is a genetic disease in which the red blood cells become sickle under a condition of low oxygen tension leading to blockage of small blood vessels. The reduced blood supply to the tissues results in pain especially from the bones. The blood oxygen is usually reduced in extremes of temperatures, cold in this case. ‘Sicklers’ as patients are often referred to, should be vigilant and keep warm as much as possible to prevent crises. Because of the dusty atmosphere, there is need to imbibe healthy food preservation culture especially food hawkers such as fruits and soya sellers to prevent food born diseases. Fruits and vegetables should be properly washed before eating. Our drinking water containers should also be properly covered.

The Harmattan is a natural hazard that we have to contain with. That not withstanding, man’s alteration of his natural environment, help fuel these natural hazards with attendant health consequences. Desert encroachment by human activities in form of deforestation must be discouraged by the relevant authorities. It is not enough to observe ceremonial tree planting campaigns yearly without devising a means of nurturing  them. Alternative means of fuel such as coal would go a long way in reducing the societal demand for fire wood for cooking. Environmental sanitation and enacting and enforcing laws to regulate environmental pollution from industrial bye products are all measures that will minimize the adverse health effect of this natural hazard. Indeed, there is no weather that would fully be accepted by all humans no matter how favourable it is. God in his wisdom alternate weathers to suit all His creatures and not only man.    Our challenge is to live to adapt to the not too favourable weather by adopting personal and collective measures to maximize the health benefits accrued to it and minimize the opposite. Wish you healthy and safe Harmattan period.

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