Nasarawa State Governor and Lassa fever survivor Governor Umaru Tanko Almakura delivers touching Keynote Address at the first-ever international Lassa fever conference at the Transcorp Hilton, Abuja-Nigeria

The conference which marks 50 years of discovering the virus in Nigeria attracted health experts, researchers and scientists from all parts of the world who have been working on the Lassa fever disease, especially since its inception.
At the conference, researchers from countries with incidences of Lassa fever disease would be able to share knowledge and suggest ways to curb the disease
The theme of the conference is; ‘50 years of Lassa fever: Rising to the challenge.’

Lassa fever, also known as Lassa hemorrhagic fever (LHF), is a type of viral hemorrhagic fever caused by the Lassa virus. Many of those infected by the virus do not develop symptoms. When symptoms occur they typically include fever, weakness, headaches, vomiting, and muscle pains. Less commonly there may be bleeding from the mouth or gastrointestinal tract The risk of death once infected is about one percent and frequently occurs within two weeks of the onset of symptoms. Among those who survive about a quarter have hearing loss, which improves over time in about half.

Full keynote address below:

Your Excellencies, Distinguished Guests
Friends all:

Thank you for giving me this rare opportunity to share my story with the world at the Lassa Fever International Conference. I consider it a rare honour and divine privilege to be alive today to share with you how I was afflicted by Lassa fever and how I live each day with the emotional and physical scars imprinted on my life by Lassa fever.

My name is Umaru Tanko Al-makura. The name “TANKO” in Hausa is usually given to a male child who is born after so many girls. I was born after seven girls, and so it’s easy for you to hear people jokingly refer to me with the appellation: “TANKO NA MATA” (which directly translated means “TANKO OF WOMEN!” or “TANKO OF THE LADIES!”

Growing up with seven sisters, I learnt how to do virtually all the things young girls can do; from play cooking to hawking of all kinds of articles like Akara, Madidi, Kerosine, Akamu, Cassava flour, etc. In fact till today as Governor, I am confident that if I concentrate very well, I am likely to pour kerosene from the mouth of one bottle into another bottle without spilling a single drop on the floor.

I grew up around girls and therefore I naturally picked up feminine and domestic instincts. It is this sense of care and protection which I brought to bear in how I nurtured my own children after I got married. So it was not surprising that when as a young married man of 37 years old, my own two sons showed symptoms of a strange sickness which was earlier diagnosed as Typhoid Fever where they were clamping their teeth, I naturally grabbed the mouth of my younger son without sterilization or wearing any protective gloves, as I tried to force his mouth open as the doctors were trying to administer medication to them in a state of “Fit”.

My concern as that of any loving father was to reach for my son, hold him in my arms and do all in my power to protect him from hurting himself by the way his teeth was tightly clenched. That was how my younger son unintentionally bit my fingers and in the process I also was unknowingly infected.

That particular younger son of mine is still alive today by divine luck, but he lost his hearing ability just the same way I also became completely deaf. My elder son however was not so lucky. He died at the onset of being infected by Lassa fever. All this happened about 29 years ago.

Today and in this very timely and all important conference, we are gathered here together to sound an important “wake-up call” to the entire country and indeed to the African continent that Lassa fever has been with us now for about 50 years without any end in sight or any clear and decisive preventive mechanism, I feel is too long.

At the time I contracted Lassa fever about 30 years ago, medical information about the disease was scanty and its treatment at that time was barely experimental or should I say, at an elementary level. And the health care facility we had in my hometown of Lafia and indeed the entire country at that time was inadequate. So given the circumstances, expertise in the diagnosis and treatment of Lassa fever was not readily available especially as there were no Special Disease Labs hence many specimen had to be taken to CDC, Atlanta, USA.

I can recall being seized by high fever and then I began to cough, stomach ache, palpitation, headache and bleeding in the gums and my nose. I also had difficulty breathing because my nose, throat and my chest were swollen. The sac surrounding my heart felt tight and heavy which made my breathing abnormal and erratic. I had seizures and went in and out of coma!

This state of hopelessness and “trial by error” or “waiting for a miracle to-happen!” went on for almost 2 weeks. The doctors were in frenzy and all forms of fever were diagnosed and treated, but there was no significant improvement in my health in spite of the fact that I was in a hospital in Jos (JUTH).

In fact now that I think back, the idea to associate and finally link my symptoms to Lassa fever was a “miracle of sorts” and this miracle was brought about by no other individual than the very humble Professor Oyewale Tomori! YES...It was Dr. Oyewale Tomori at that time who diagnosed and insisted that I should be flown to Lagos Eko Hospital (then one of the most efficient) while my blood sample was sent to CDC at Atlanta and ‘alas’ the result indicated Lassa.

It will therefore not be wrong to say “Professor OYEWALE TOMORI is the Doctor responsible for saving my life!” If I have never said it before, this is a golden occasion as good as any, to formally say to “PROFESSOR OYEWALE TOMORI: THANK YOU FOR SAVING MY LIFE!”

My dear friends, I stand before you today as a product of the tragedy of Lassa fever. I was completely deaf for twenty years before the successful procedure which ensured that I have Coglea Implant which mechanically processes the sound. I endure a certain measure of physical discomfort, because every day I have to wear a hearing aid for almost 18 hours before I go to sleep.

But for me, I honestly consider myself to be a very lucky and privileged person who happens to be living with the disability of hearing impairment.

Perhaps because of my condition, my senses have become naturally heightened to the pain of a million other people who have lost their limbs, eyes or their arms and other senses and have to manage how to face life with all these challenges on their own in a most pedestrian and ordinary way.

I see such persons and I can easily feel the endless Psychological Trauma and bodily pain they have to endure. That is why even as I stand before you as a product of the tragedy of Lassa fever, I am also proud to say that I typified the adage that ‘there is Ability in Disability’

That is why my focus in government has been to take development to the far-flung corners of our society, to those who are poor, excluded, voiceless, forgotten and detached from the trappings of power simply because they are disabled or disadvantaged.

That is what informed my desire and audacity to dare contesting for the office of Governor in 2011 (20years after my aborted attempt in 1990) when I was physically sound and holding the office of National Secretary of NRC.

And I remained deaf, profoundly deaf for about twenty years. From 1990 to 2010! I had to use mechanical devices and other hearing aids, coglea implant to be able to sieve sounds. At that time I was an entrepreneur and whenever I go to seek for contracts, some people will just look at me when they talk and I cannot hear, someone will just say what can this deaf person do? He is looking a job of about five million or ten million, when he cannot even hear when you talk to him! So how do we trust a deaf man with N10 or N20 million naira job?

Unknown to them, the hearing is not the capacity. The capacity and ability of someone is in his intellect in his sense of industry!

Saddled with rejection after rejection, I decided to get away from activities that will give me worries or I will be forced to face the scrutiny of people who will instinctively size me up to ascertain whether my disability had anything to do with my competence, capability or industry or out rightly condemning me on assumption and speculation.!

I decided to pursue a vocation that had nothing to do with getting people to fend for you or to sympathize with you, so I went straight into real estate business which is something that my family was conversant with. I have been in Abuja ever since then doing my business without going to any office with any briefcase to seek for any contracts. I build houses, rent them, sale them not only in Nigeria but even beyond.

However, that did not quench my desire and commitment to seek for positive change for Nasarawa state and God in his own way delayed my success or achievement of that aspiration from 1990 till 2011. A period of about twenty-one years, so you can see as the saying goes, "God's time is the best".

That is why when I became Governor in 2011, I led a PEACEFUL DEMONSTRATION TO THE NATIONAL ASSEMBLY in 2012 to demand for the enactment of the Disabilities Law in Nigeria that will ensure full integration of persons with disabilities into the society and to establish a National Commission for Persons with Disabilities and vest it with the responsibilities for their Education, Health Care and the Protection of their Social, Economic and Civil Rights. 
In addition, I sent an Executive Bill to the Nasarawa State House of Assembly for a law to protect the rights and also improve on the lives of the persons living with disabilities in my own state. The Bill speedily went through legislative procedures where a public hearing was conducted with stakeholders overwhelmingly supporting my move to establish the DISABILITY RIGHTS COMMISSION in Nasarawa state. Today I am proud to say that I have signed into law the bill establishing THE DISABILITY RIGHTS COMMISSION in Nasarawa State.

As Governor, I embarked on the establishment of comprehensive and integrated special schools for persons with disabilities across the three (3) senatorial districts of Nasarawa State. These comprehensive Special Schools are equipped with assistive technologies like Smart boards, Braille machines and physiotherapy equipment to make teaching and learning easy for both the teachers and the disabled students. Government has also made it a policy that disabled students in these Special Schools do not pay any school fees, while we provide them with FREE LUNCH, FREE UNIFORMS and TRANSPORTATION. Additionally I have also adopted a new policy of providing automatic employment to all persons living with disability, as well as granting them, 
Above all this as my contribution to the eradication of Lassa fever and other dangerous Communicable Diseases; we are building a Comprehensive Laboratory and Diagnostic Integrated Center in Lafia that is likely to be a center for the entire North Central Zone.

All these are my modest responses to my affliction with Lassa fever and my way of saying THANK YOU TO GOD for keeping me alive to be here with you today and share my story which I hope will inspire you all to KEEP UP THE BATTLE AGAINST LASSA FEVER!

Thank you and God bless!

Umaru Tanko Al-makura
Governor, Nasarawa State 
16th January 2019
Transcorp Hilton, Abuja-Nigeria