The launch of the Noma Centre Abuja is set to transform medical care for those affected by the devastating noma disease. The centre is more than just a treatment centre, it represents a symbol of hope, compassion, and community support, offering free services to those affected by the disease.
Noma, a disease that primarily affects children living in impoverished conditions, causes rapid facial tissue deterioration. The disease is caused by conditions such as malnutrition, poor oral hygiene, and a weakened immune system. Without timely treatment, irreversible damage to facial tissues, such as the gums, cheeks, and nose develops, posing significant risks to overall health. The effects of noma are serious, including disfigurement, social isolation, and, in severe cases, death.
Each year, an estimated 770,000 noma survivors and 140,000 children worldwide are impacted by the disease. Between 2010 and 2018, the national incidence of noma in Nigeria ranged from 4.1 to 17.9 cases per 100,000 people, with the north east and north west regions being the most impacted.
Noma is public health concern in Nigeria, however, not enough measures have been put in place to mitigate its impact. Development partners, public health organisations and medical missions from international medical groups have collaborated to raise awareness about noma and attempt to improve the healthcare infrastructure, to enable access to treatment for noma patients.
A unique approach to healthcare
Unlike common health conditions, noma demands a unique and specialised treatment approach and rehabilitation. Recognising the urgency of specialised treatment, given noma’s aggressive nature, Noma Aid Nigeria Initiative (NANI),a Nigerian non-governmental organisation with support from German Hilfsaktion Noma eV and funding from private donations in Germany and Austria partnered with the Federal Ministry of Health and Social Welfare (FMoH) to establish the Noma Centre Abuja within the grounds of the National Hospital in Abuja. The National Hospital serves as an apex hospital in the country, where tertiary health facilities in Nigeria can refer their patients.
The Noma Centre Abuja is centrally located at the National Hospital to enable easy access for all patients. The establishment of the specialised treatment centre reflects ongoing efforts to tackle the disease in Nigeria. The centre has been envisioned to aid the advancement of noma-related research, raise awareness about the disease, and contribute to the eventual eradication of noma disease in Nigeria.
Fighting the root causes of noma disease
The Noma Centre Abuja was opened on November 22, 2023, Noma Day, commemorated each year to raise awareness and to prevent the disease. The opening of the Noma Centre Abuja signified NANI’s commitment to supporting the government to eliminate noma disease in Nigeria. The centre was opened by the Honourable Coordinating Minister of Health and Social Welfare, Professor Muhammad Ali Pate, represented by the Permanent Secretary of Health, Ms Kachollom Daju. Ms Winkler-Stumpf who founded Hilfsaktion Noma e.V. in 1994 after becoming aware of the disease, was also present at the launch.
At the launch, stakeholders noted that the disease was on the rise and called for improved awareness and improved case identification and treatment. In her speech, Ms Daju recognised the critical importance of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the fight against noma disease.
‘’If we meet the SDGs, noma should not exist. Its prevalence indicates the need for urgent action to accelerate SDGs implementation and the realisation of Universal Health Coverage. The government will not rest until noma disease is eradicated.’’ Ms. Kachollom Daju, Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Health
While the Noma Centre Abuja is a huge step forward in the treatment of noma disease, the root causes of noma such as poverty and malnutrition must be addressed. Since noma primarily affects young children between the ages of 2 and 6 years, suffering from malnutrition, there is an urgent need to implement nutrition interventions in vulnerable communities. This requires improved coordination among development partners to ensure that communities in need, with poor nutrition outcomes are integrated into existing nutrition programmes.
The Nigeria Health Sector Renewal Investment Initiative, which was unveiled on December 12th 2023, and the signing of the sector-wide health renewal compact by development partners and federal and state governments on UHC day, should ensure better alignment of resources and programmes, such as nutrition interventions. The success of nutrition interventions is dependent on all stakeholders working together to expand the reach of available nutrition services to the broader Nigerian population.
Despite being a severe condition, noma is treatable if diagnosed and dealt with early. As a result, establishing robust partnerships is needed to enable case identification and the seamless referral of patients from health facilities to the Noma Centre Abuja. Health professionals can play a pivotal role in ensuring a smooth continuum of care for individuals affected by noma, through collaborative action to create a comprehensive healthcare ecosystem.
‘’Noma is killing children, and the statistics keep rising. Thanks to Hilfsaktion Noma, we now have a centre to restore hope for noma victims and support research for its elimination in Nigeria. Together we can work to create a better future for our children. Prof Muhammad Mahmud Raji, Chief Medical Director, National Hospital Abuja.
More than a treatment centre
The children receiving treatment are likely to stay for extended periods at the Noma Centre Abuja, due to the lengthy recovery time between procedures. The structure of the centre is intended to ease the stress that is commonly associated with hospital visits, particularly for young patients. A warm and welcoming environment, bright murals on the walls, and child-friendly elements all contribute to an atmosphere that nurtures hope and healing.
Speaking at the launch, Mathis Winkler, Chairman, NANI stated ’’As we mark the commissioning of the Noma Centre Abuja, I am pleased that a building like this will rise to become Nigeria’s new centre for the treatment of noma, in a few days, noma patients will start arriving here to prepare for surgery in January 2024.’’
The construction of the Noma Centre Abuja was overseen by Roland Mittermayer, architect for the centre. In his words ‘’this facility is not just a hospital; it transforms into a temporary home for the children during their stay. Additionally, there is accommodation for relatives, with a capacity for up to 80 children. For the medical staff, there are sleeping quarters on the third floor, eliminating the need for external lodging. The design incorporates a central courtyard where children play, fostering a homely atmosphere’’.
Noma disease recognised as a neglected tropical disease
On the 15th of December, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced the inclusion of noma in its official list of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). This decision aims to amplify global awareness, catalyse research, stimulate funding, and boost efforts to control the disease through multisectoral and multi-pronged approaches. Through the #EndNomaInNaija campaign implemented collaboratively between Nigeria Health Watch and NANI, advocacy efforts for the prevention and treatment of noma in Nigeria are operational on both the national and state level.
The launch of the Noma Centre Abuja marks a crucial chapter in Nigeria’s healthcare journey. It addresses the specific health concerns of families with noma patients and sets a precedent for a compassionate and patient-centred healthcare model. As the doors of the centre open, this ushers in a new era of hope and healing for children affected by noma.