BY NAOMI SHARANG/JACINTA NWACHUKWU
CLIMATOLOGISTS describe harmattan as a hot, dry and dusty wind that blows over West Africa.
They note that this northeasterly wind blows from the Sahara Desert into the Gulf of Guinea between the end of November and the middle of March.
On its passage over the desert, the wind picks up fine dust and sand particles, while the air is particularly dry and desiccating when the wind blows over the region.
At morning, low temperatures can easily be as low as 15 °C (59 °F) or 20 °C (68 °F). At afternoon, high temperatures easily soar to more than 30 °C (86°F) and can reach as high as 40 °C (104 °F) sometimes, while the relative humidity drops under 10 per cent.
In a nutshell, harmattan induces desert-like weather conditions: it lowers the humidity, dissipates cloud cover, prevents rainfall formation and sometimes creates big clouds of dust or sand which can even result in violent dust-storms or sandstorms.
However, when the haze effect is weak, this dry wind creates beautiful sunny days with plenty of clear skies
Medical experts, nonetheless, insist that the dry weather conditions, which are associated with harmattan, have various health implications on humans, affecting their respiratory system, skin and eyes.
Dr Sopuru Chineke, a general physician at Mary’s Catholic Hospital, Gwagwalada, says that harmattan predisposes people to upper respiratory tract infections.
He adds that such infections could be contracted through dust inhaled during the harmattan season.
Besides, Chineke says that people can also contract gastroenteritis or infectious diarrhoea during the season because of scarcity of water, saying that once there is inadequate water supply, environmental hygiene is usually poor.
“The harmattan season is the dry season and during that period, a lot of things happen.
“The wind is usually dusty and a lot of infections also take place; some people end up contracting upper respiratory tract infections.
“During the season, people inhale dusty air. By the time the dust gets into the nasal tract, the respiratory defence system tries to treat the substances and remove the dust.
“Unfortunately, people inhaling dusty air can catch upper respiratory tract infections, which can be transmitted from one person to another,” he says.
Moreover, Chineke says that some people usually do not remember to wash their hands after using the toilet; adding that when such people use their tainted hands to prepare meals, such meals could be contaminated.
“These are some of the ways through which infections can spread during the harmattan season,’’ he adds.
The medical doctor, however, says that upper respiratory tract infections can cause catarrh, nasal congestion (nasal discharge) and cough, adding that if there is a bacterial infection, fever may also occur.
“Furthermore, the symptoms of gastrointestinal infection include vomiting and frequent stooling as well as abdominal pain, while its treatment depends largely on the severity of the condition,’’ he says.
Chineke explains that in event of severe gastroenteritis infection, the infected person would be admitted in the hospital and given fluids, so as to restore the fluids which the body system have lost due to vomiting and stooling.
“There is also the need to treat the cause of such infections because bacteria are usually involved. Antibiotics and other supportive therapy could be given to stop the vomiting and stooling if the infected person is an adult,’’ he says.
Chineke, however, says that antibiotics and antipyretics are usually used for the treatment of upper respiratory tract infections.
He says that the drugs would help to control the fever, while efforts should be made to ensure that “the patient does not continue to take cold drinks or get exposed to cold’’.
He also says that consumption of fruits and foods that are rich in Vitamins C and A will help to boost the people’s immune system, thereby preventing infections.
Chineke, however, underscores the need to keep infected persons in isolated areas, so as to guard against the spread of the infection to others, particularly children.
Sharing similar sentiments, Dr Kennedy Ishaya, Gombe State’s Commissioner for Health, advises the public to adopt precautionary measures to prevent the occurrence of ailments associated with the harmattan season.
He lists conjunctivitis and skin problems as some of the infections that usually occur during the harmattan season.
Ishaya urges the people to wear protective eye glasses that can prevent dust from entering their eyes.
He, however, warns the people against bush burning in order to ensure the preservation of trees, which are wind breakers and protectors of the ecosystem.
Speaking on the effects of harmattan on the skin, Dr Olanrewaju Falodun, a Senior Consultant Dermatologist at the National Hospital, Abuja, says that human skin can become dry during harmattan season as a result of the dry wind.
His words: “When the skin is dry, it becomes wrinkled; the skin can also have cracks which can degenerate into bruises and lesions.’’
Falodun says that people also have a tendency to develop skin rashes during harmattan season, adding that the skin rashes can also induce itching.
“When the weather is dry, a lot of itching takes place and when people scratch the itchy skin, they may inadvertently introduce infections to the skin,’’ he says.
He emphasises that harmattan can also predispose people to asthmatic attacks, sneezing and coughs.
Falodun, however, underscores the need for the people to be well-hydrated during the period, saying: “It is a period when people should drink a lot of water because water helps to hydrate the skin.’’
He also advises the people to use emollient creams which help in moisturising the skin.
“If one has bad cracks on the skin, there is the need to wear clothes that will cover the feet and other parts of the body prone to dryness,’’ he says.
All the same, Falodun urges the people to refrain from wearing clothes that can generate excessive heat during harmattan since the season is typified by the two weather extremes.
“The harmattan period is usually characterised by heat during the day while it gets very cold at night,” he adds.
Funny enough, the dermatologist calls on people to avoid excessive use of antiseptic soaps, insisting that the use of very strong antiseptics tends to make the skin to dry up.