Friday, June 19, 2009

Puzzle Over A Strange Illness

As the date for the yearly promotional examination of the students of the Federal Government Girls’ College (FGGC) Bwari in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) of Nigeria draws near, one question that will not cease to give the authorities of the school sleepless nights is how many of such students would be available for the examinations.

Going by the notice placed on the school’s main gate, any student who fails to be part of the examinations will have himself to blame. The school located on the hilly side of Bwari-almost 45 minutes from the city centre-has been in the news for the past three weeks. No thanks to the strange illness that has afflicted the students and to which even the federal government appears incapable of finding a solution to. As a result of the severity of the disease, parents have been forced to quickly withdraw their wards, albeit temporarily to allow for proper investigation, thorough check-up and appropriate medications.

Although the Federal Ministries of Health and Education have explained the strange illness as ‘Mass Adolescent Hysteria’, parents and indeed, many Nigerians appear unimpressed with the official response to what should otherwise be an emergency situation. For example, many are left wondering why it took the authorities a long time to respond to the situation considering the fact that more than half of the students population live within the school’s premises and could have come from other parts of the country.

Not even the visits of the two ministers in the Education Ministry, Prof. Fabian Osuji and Hajia Bintu Ibrahim Musa to the school could help unravel the circumstances behind the illness.

In the early part of last month, information got round that young girls affected by the disease had joint pains and could not walk about freely as their legs shake and wobble. Though the school authorities swept the strange illness under the carpet, it became apparent that the worrying parents who were left to cater for their children could no longer keep sealed lips over the ‘alleged official negligence’ and they started trooping into the school to register their displeasure.

One of the parents pointedly accused the school management of not doing enough to contain the spread of the ailment, a charge the school’s principal, Hajia Bunmi Jamila Gold firmly denied, saying the management had taken all necessary measures to contain it. But it appears that the more officials try to cover up the story of the illness, the more it comes out. More students were being taken home by their guardians, thereby giving a lie to the official claims.

For example, when the principal conducted the Minister of State for Education round the affected students lately, she was confident that in a question of days, the ailment would be contained. She had identified it as mere fever. Perhaps, it was the same optimism that informed the submission by her visitor on the national television that she was satisfied with the steps taken so far.

According to her, “The staff and students are co-operating, so I am satisfied with the steps taken so far”. But despite the assurances by the minister that all would be well, the contrary seemed to be the case prompting another visit to the school last week of Professor Osuji to see things himself.

After he had been conducted round by the principal, Osuji told reporters that “the reports we gathered from the director of public health and chief epidemiologist, both of the Federal Ministry of Health confirmed that the sample they took from here did not indicate any viral or bacterial illness. In other words, there was no medical reason for any condition to exist. They said that what they could identify was what they described as mass hysteria among the children and such a condition could exist during examination or during conditions of stress. So in any case, they could not label any disease.

“Moreover, as the children who suffer from such syndrome get well after taking Vitamin C complex and Paractamol, we are glad that whatever it was, the condition no longer exists”.

Justifying his position, the Minister claimed he had been dealing with students for a long time and ‘I know that during examinations it does happen everywhere”. Some of the parents were quick to disagree pointing out that the students of the 10-year old institution had been preparing and taking examinations for about ten years now. Therefore this particular case must have something behind it.

Asked what he thought the ministry could do to prevent a recurrence, Osuji said, “how would you prevent a disease if it is not a disease or if it is not a medical condition? That is what is said, how can I take steps to prevent it. I am telling you that I can only work with what doctors say. If they tell us that there is an infection here, or a bacterial condition or an epidemic, we will have cause to review our reaction. We can even go as far as asking the Federal Ministry of Health to examine whatever steps necessary to prevent the recurrence”.

For now Osuji said the government was not contemplating closing down the institution as being demanded by some parents because according to him, the situation had not warranted that kind of extreme measure. He believed that closing down the school at this time could create unnecessary fear and panic in the minds of the students and their parents.

Funke Adedoyin, the Minister of State for Health also attributed the condition to ‘mass hysteria’ while speaking with newsmen in Abuja recently blaming the strange ailment on a symptomatic disorder.

She gave the medical name as ‘discriminative disorder’, claiming that it was discovered after a clinical analysis of the ailment. She however added that the result she gave was a preliminary outcome, saying the ministry would not rely solely on the result of the clinical analysis in the process of finding solutions to the problem.

According to her, the ministry was awaiting the outcome of the epidemiological analysis of the ailment before drawing conclusions on the causes of the health problem. She expressed optimism that whatever results that came out of the clinical analysis would be confirmed or supported by the result of the analysis of the ailment done outside the country.

While the final word is being awaited, an independent observation of the environment made shocking revelations.

One fact both the government and the school authorities do not seem to be addressing is the area of congestion, coupled with poor sanitary conditions in the hostels. For instance, a parent who visited one of the hostels at the peak of the crisis gave a vivid account of the state of congestion in the hostel. She cited instances where two students share the upper bunk of the bed that was ordinarily meant for a student.

This is not peculiar to the school. It is a condition that replicates itself in virtually all the 102 unity schools spread across the country. The Minister of Education while giving his yearly press briefing in Abuja recently admitted as much and blamed it on the pressure on those institutions.

The good news, however is that the government has realised the danger of young persons studying under such conditions. According to the minister, government has concluded plans to inject funds for the massive rehabilitation of all unity schools throughout the country. Specifically he announced that about N4 billion would be expended on these schools in the current session. This is in addition to the promised improvement on feeding and other overhead costs.

Parents have not completely joined the government in shouting freedom. Consequently some of them have adopted a wiser approach of temporarily withdrawing their wards from the boarding houses. A student of the college confirmed that most of her colleagues would prefer for now to be coming from home.

“We are still afraid of coming back to the dormitory. Most of us now come from home. Though my own case is different since my parents stay here in Bwari but those residing outside Bwari town find it difficult and they are being forced to come to school once in a while”, she said.

Asked if the story about poor sick bay was correct, she said, “Well I have not been there before and I don’t intend to go there since most of my friends who have been often complain of dirty environment, lack of drugs and sub-standard drugs where available”.

Mrs. Philomena Obadawe whose daughter is in the school said her daughter still goes to school from home until everything about the epidemic is rested. Though her daughter was not affected by the disease, she insisted that her girl would not return to the hostel until the situation is medically certified.

“My daughter is not affected but she is still coming from home due to the fear of recurrence of the epidemic and would continue like that until the Federal Ministry of Health confirms the situation normal”.

She would rather her daughter loses a session than losing her out rightly stressing that life of her daughter is more important.

The Chief Medical Director of Wuse General Hospital where some of the students were initially admitted, Dr. Anthony Momoh, confirmed that some of the students of FGGC Bwari were brought into the hospital. He said nine of them were admitted.

“Yes, about nine of the students were admitted here. Six were admitted initially and later another three making it nine in all”, he said.

Asked what the cause of the epidemic was, he replied that he did not know but when asked how he began to treat patients without knowing the cause of their ailment, he said, “Well, we did physiotherapy and administered drugs on them. Actually, we treated them for shaking and wobbling legs which was the major symptom of the epidemic”.

Dr. Momoh also added that the affected students were certified healed before they left the hospital, though there was no post medical examination to monitor their progress and response to the treatment. But situations on ground still indicate that it is not yet safe in FGGC Bwari as a notice posted on the school main gate reads:

• Any boarding student who is still experiencing wobbling and shaking legs is free to be coming from her home.

• Students are also reminded that promotional examination comes up on July 9, 2004

• Any student who fails to be part of this examination will have herself to blame.


  1. The original of this article titled 'FGGC Bwari: Puzzle Over A Strange Illness' with additional report by Mohammed Abubakar was first published by the Guardian Newspapers of Nigeria on Sunday July 4, 2004.



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