For residents of Zamfara State and in fact the North West geo-political zone of the country, the past few weeks have brought about some of the most difficult weather conditions seen in recent years. The dry season, known in this part of the world as Harmattan, has been in its worst form in living memory, bringing socio-economic activities to a halt.

Harmattan is a dry and dusty West African trade wind that blows south from Sahara into the Gulf of Guinea between the end of November and the middle of March, a period of winter in other parts of the world. On its passage over the desert, it picks up dust particles (between 0.5 and 10 micrometres).

In some West African countries, the heavy amount of dust in the air can severely limit visibility and block the sun for several days, comparable to a heavy fog. The effect caused by the dust and sand stirred by these winds is known as the Harmattan Haze, and costs airlines millions in cancelled and diverted flights each year. When the Harmattan blows hard, it can push dust and sand all the way to South America. The harmattan haze is blowing across the North in an unusual manner. People have ascribed unusual weather patterns in the world to climate change problems in recent times.

With its attendant poor visibility, motorists and other road users have joined other people in feeling the pinch. At its worst, the Harmattan comes with three harsh conditions: dust, wind, and cold. None of the three can be said to be fair considering the fact that no meaningful activity will be carried out. For first time visitors to the affected states, the Harmattan can be very uncomfortable as no serious socio-economic activity will be carried out.

In Gusau, the Zamfara State capital, the past two weeks have seen a slow down in economic and social activities. Markets open late while places of worship have seen decline in attendance, especially of the early morning worshipers. Offices open late and close early, while petty labourers, who help in loading items in the market, popularly known here as Yan Dako, find it difficult to work.

Experts have ascribed the harsh form of Harmattan experienced in recent years to Global Warming, an issue that is at the front burner of international discussions and debates. While harmattan generally featured in some parts of the southern hinterland, there were hardly traces of harmattan in many areas from October to January which were supposed to be its effective seasons. In 1990, experts were worried that for a long time, there was no trace of Harmattan during its season.

But, Mr. Thaddeus Obidike, chief meteorologist central forecasting officer, Lagos, explained that the erratic weather was caused by "a very deep low pressure area centered on Europe and North America, which persisted between October and December 1990. In the last two decades, it has become unusual to have the type of Harmattan currently being experienced in the south. The carrying of the Sahara dust haze during this season now appears to be unusual. As a Kenyan farmer innocently commented on the change in weather pattern some years ago, "the weather is confused"!!

While the Southern part of the country may be enjoying a relative humid condition at this time of the year, people in the far North are counting their losses at the nature's fury on their lives. Ustaz Surajuddeen Sani, an indigene of Kwara State who is experiencing the extreme form of the weather for the first time told THISDAY that his life style and that of members of his family have changed in the last few weeks.

"All of us wake up late these days because the weather is so harsh. In the morning, the strength of the wind is so much that you feel as if your roof will be blown off. Honestly I have never seen anything like this before and we are barely managing to cope," Napiya Gambo, a youth corps member serving in the state said even though she was born and brought up in the north, the harshness of the weather this year is incomparable with anything she has seen in the past.

"Honestly it is bad. I don't know how to describe it but anything that will make me go to work late is something. As it is right now, you cannot leave your house earlier than 10 am because it will be too cold. You have to cover all parts of your body to stand a chance with the weather. It is a hopeless situation because you cannot control it. The only remedy is for you to be in a warmer environment, but how many people can get such?" she emphasised.

Iliyasu Garba Birnin Tudu, who is a tomato seller in Gusau's old Market, said business has been on the slide as a result of the weather. "The traffic in and around the market has reduced in recent days and people don't come for shopping. I had to change what I sell to make ends meet. Before now, I deal in perishable goods but now, I sell things like herb tea, ginger and the likes. Those are what people come here to buy. Other things that sell much include cardigans, jacket, winter caps, socks and hand gloves. For now, we have to do with what we have pending when the weather gets warmer and more people come to the market," he said.

Tanko Bello Bukkuyum 48 years old is an indigene of Zamfara and has lived all his life in Gusau. He said from what he can remember the worst form Harmattan happened from 2006 to this year. "Two years ago (2006), it was worse, we thought it will subside but last year, it was something else, this year again, we have seen it go worse than the previous years. We don't know what to do about it other than keep praying. But I tell you, we are all worried."

The peoples' worries stem from the fact that Harmattan brings about not only harsh weather, but series of tropical diseases which have had devastating consequences over the years. Most pronounced being cold-related illnesses like cough, catarrh and feverish conditions. Some scholars believe Harmattan has a great hold over the spatio-temporal distribution of cerebrospinal meningitis (CSM).

According to many authors, heavy responsibilities for this lie in the damage caused to surface defense mechanisms by adverse climatic conditions and seasonal respiratory infections. CSM is a major concern in developing countries, particularly in tropical climates, since overcrowding, poor sanitation, poor living conditions and in some instances, limited access to adequate health care can contribute to large epidemic outbreaks.

The disease mainly affects the northern states from November to March, April or even May. On an average, acme occurs in February-March. Regression analysis confirmed that a part of the space/time variability of the disease was due to Harmattan and dry weather. Mediation of adverse climatic conditions in the infectious phenomenon is therefore indisputable, through both outbreaks of concurrent respiratory tract infections and sudden decreasing immunity.

Other health-related effects include dry skin, cuts on the foot and dry nose. Results suggest that while large deposits of loess-rich dust may aid soil fertility at the fringes of the Saharan dust source, the increasing trend of frequency of occurrence and intensity of dust in Nigeria may worsen the health hazards in the north such as acute respiratory infections, pneumonia and bronchitis. This may become serious in the immediate future in the southern parts of Nigeria which hitherto had been spared the menace of severe Harmattan dust haze.

According to Dr. Murtala Umar, a Gusau-based medical practitioner, the skin can be kept healthy by topical application of oily creams and weather friendly dressing. This is perhaps the best time to explore the cultural advantage of wearing babban riiga and suits, as it pleases one, to keep warm. As we use various means depending on our socioeconomic status to keep our homes warm, extra caution must be taken to prevent fire accidents.

Many homes usually record increase in fire accidents in this period of the year. The eyes are directly exposed to the harsh weather especially the dust particles carried by the wind. Thus itching, foreign body sensation and redness may be common especially in individuals with allergic eye disease. According to Dr. Umar, proper eye hygiene in form of washing with clean water, reduce exposure to dust and protective spectacles, are advocated.

The respiratory system, because of its direct communication with the atmosphere, is heavily and badly affected. The respiratory tract has got a defensive mechanism that stops harmful particles in the air from getting to the lungs. This defense may however be overwhelmed by the concentration of the pollutants in the atmosphere, depending on the health status of a person or owing to small sized particles that escape entrapment. The resultant effect is damage to the system predisposing to infection. Excessive sneezing, cough and catarrh are some of the symptoms common to most people. The Harmattan period is not the best of weathers for people with pre existing chronic chest infection.

The dry, cold and dusty wind associated with Harmattan also triggers sickle cell crises in affected individuals. Sickle cell anaemia to recall is a genetic disease in which the red blood cells become sickle under a condition of low oxygen tension leading to blockage of small blood vessels. The reduced blood supply to the tissues results in pain especially from the bones. The blood oxygen is usually reduced in extremes of temperatures, cold in this case. 'Sicklers' as patients are often referred to, should be vigilant and keep warm as much as possible to prevent crises.

Indeed, there is no weather that would fully be accepted by all humans no matter how favourable it is. God in his wisdom alternate weathers to suit all His creatures and not only man. The challenge is to live to adapt to the not-too favourable weather by adopting personal and collective measures to maximise the health benefits accrued to it and minimise the opposite.

According to Umar, the Harmattan, despite its adverse health effects, is not without some health benefits to man. For example, the low temperature associated with it is unfavourable for breeding of mosquitoes thus reducing the incidence of malaria.

He said the skin, the eyes and the respiratory tract which directly communicate with the atmosphere, the later via the nose and mouth, are most vulnerable to the adverse effects of this weather.