According to the American English Language Dictionary: Fourth Edition. 2000, harmattan may have been originated from the Arabic word: HARAM. This literally means; the evil thing. Perhaps this origin may not be far from the adverse effects of the weather condition especially in the Saharan sub region. The harmattan is a dry and dusty wind blowing northeast and west off the Sahara Desert into the Gulf of Guinea often from November to March. While sweeping over the surface of the desert, the dry wind picks up fine dust particles, relatively between 0.5 and 10 micrometers and releases them into the atmosphere. This diminishes the humidity, dissipates cloud cover, prevents rainfall formation and occasionally creates big clouds of dust. A heavy amount of the dust in the air can severely limit visibility and block the sun for a number of days, comparable to a heavy fog. This is referred to as harmattan haze and can affect the work of airlines negatively as flights could be cancelled or diverted.
Despite, the groans of Ghanaians on the sudden rise of the harmattan and its associated effects, the deadly wind do not seize to clinch severity. Its pace in ravaging the whole country keeps on heightening every minute. In fact, humidity is vanishing day by day and our dusty roads are becoming dead traps as they are getting choked by dry dust, which often poses visibility challenges to drivers who plies them.
This alone can claim many lives as drivers who may not see clearly because of the dust often blown by their vehicles can run into other vehicles causing accidents. However, if only drivers can take precautionary measures and drive carefully, perhaps more lives would be saved. The story is the same for airlines and harbours as lack of visibility gives them numerous challenges. Though arguable, it may sound logical to argue that, if road, air or sea accident is the only havoc that could be posed by the dreadful Harmattan, then Ghanaians might be lucky. Unfortunately, that is just a minor threat associated with the menace.
Harmattan poses causes havocs and can rob the nation of many lives. The weather has adverse effects on the skin, the eye and the respiratory tract, which directly communicate with the atmosphere. Dusty air affects the nose and the lungs. Mostly that of the nose comes with a lot of sneezing and watery discharge. Excessive sneezing can also lead to crust in the nose, which causes severe pains and discomfort.
The skin is usually dry with accompanying cracking of the lips, while the hands and the feet become too cold, which could generate unpleasant symptoms. When the skin becomes excessively dry, it can trigger dehydration and heatstroke. The two conditions are very deadly.
The most vulnerable persons include babies and the elderly as they are very likely to be affected by hypothermia, a core body temperature below 35 degrees centigrade, which is caused by sub optimal temperature regulating mechanism. This can lead to death if immediate treatments are not sought for.
According to healthcare experts, harmattan can increase the infection of respiratory problems including dreadful asthma and bronchitis. The respiratory system, because of its direct communication with the atmosphere, is badly affected.
Though the system tract has got a defensive mechanism that stops harmful particles in the air from getting to the lungs, it may lose its strength of defense due to the concentration of the pollutants in the atmosphere, depending on the health status of a person or how small is the size of the particles that escape entrapment. The effects of this include damage to the system predisposing to infection. The symptoms are many, but the common ones include excessive sneezing, cough and catarrh.
A Nigerian Family Medicine Specialist, Oluwajimi Shodipo, who works at the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, said harmattan dust increased cases of respiratory infections such as cough, catarrh, tonsillitis, influenza, pneumonia and meningitis.
“This gives discomfort to people with certain allergic conditions as well as causes infections,” Dr Shodipo.
In this case, people living with chronic diseases such as asthma can lose their lives if care is not taken. Asthma is a long-term condition that makes it hard to breathe due to inflammatory congestion in the lower respiratory tract.
I therefore, advise all asthmatic patients to pay attention to their health, by ensuring that they do not go to places where they would be exposed excessively to dusty atmosphere as it contains pollen grains and other allergenic materials capable of triggering attacks. It would be prudent for them to always ensure that they have their inhaler with them all the time. Though scary to the ear, it is equally important to note that the dry, cold and dusty wind associated with harmattan can trigger sickle cell crises in affected individuals. This can trigger sickle cell anaemia, a genetic condition where the red blood cells become sickle under a condition of low oxygen tension leading to blockage of small blood vessels. Reduction in blood supply to the tissues can cause pains in the bones. When it becomes severe, it can result to death. Sickle cell anaemia patients often referred to as “Sicklers” are also accordingly cautioned against any activities that could expose them to suffocation. They should always try to keep warm to avert any danger.
Because of the dusty atmosphere of the climate, health care experts say it would be necessary to employ a healthy food preservation culture to avert food borne diseases.
Studies have shown that some micro-organisms that cause diseases increase during harmattan period.
We must thoroughly wash fruits and vegetables before eating. We must ensure that our water containers are very clean and well-sealed to prevent dirt from entering.
Due to the extreme cold and hot weathers brought about by the harmattan, experts say it is always advisable to wear the appropriate clothing to reduce incidences of respiratory infections.
Wear thick and dark coloured clothes when the weather is cold and thin and bright clothes such as white for a hot weather.
It is safer sometimes to wear sunglasses to protect the eyes, a nose mask or a face mask where the winds are quite dusty and harsh, to prevent infections.
More water should be taken daily to prevent dehydration and heatstroke.
However, water must be taken from a safe source to stay free from contracting upper respiratory tract infections and water borne diseases such as diarrhoea and cholera.
It is also equally good to take more fruits and vegetables full of vitamin C to prevent affections.
Prefer decaffeinated drinks to caffeinated drinks to avoid dehydration as what can help you endure the effects of the harmattan is moisture.
Bath regularly and apply oily or moisturisers such as Shea butter or olive oil to protect the skin from all infections. Apply oil to your hair and the lips.
Prefer cold water to hot water as hot water strips off the oil on your skin and exposes you to dry skin.
It must be noted that, the harmattan is likely to stay with us for more than 50 days, which indicates that, any challenge it comes with shall live with us for a long period of time.
All we need to do now is to take precautionary measures to stay safe.
If you feared Ebola, harmattan is also deadly.