Free of Ebola But…

Nigeria continues to earn plaudits at home and abroad for its effort in eradicating the Ebola virus from its shores but the recent upsurge of  Lassa fever in the country calls for caution

Dr Idowu

Dr Idowu

For a country that had often been portrayed negatively in the foreign media it is understandable why many Nigerian government officials will continue to celebrate the accolades the country has been lavished with over its success in containing the Ebola virus. Even before October 20, when the World Health Organisation, WHO, officially declared Nigeria Ebola-free, the country had been praised at home and abroad by both ordinary people in the streets of Lagos and representatives of foreign governments and agencies alike.  But the seal of approval came on Monday, October 20 when Rui Gama Vaz, WHO representative, officially announced to the world that Nigeria had not only conquered Ebola, but had become a beacon of hope to the world.

“Nigeria is now free of Ebola, the virus is gone for now. The outbreak in Nigeria has been defeated. This is a spectacular success story that shows to the world that Ebola can be contained”, said Vaz.

The declaration came after a 42-day period when no new case of the deadly virus was discovered anywhere in the country of approximately 160 million people. How did the country achieve this feat? Simply, concerted efforts by both federal and state agencies helped do it. But it was not just that. Emmanuel Uduaghan, governor of Delta State, said the Ebola case was one that was devoid of blame-game or political differences among those saddled with waging the battle.  “It is one that should that if we come together, we can face any challenge. Ebola was a challenge; we came together – federal, states, individuals, the media – everybody came together. I think Ebola is the first challenge Nigeria had where there was no blame-game. There was no religious divide on Ebola; there were no political party differences on Ebola, no form of buck-passing on Ebola,” he said. Uduaghan added that, the fact of collective unity was also shared by President Goodluck Jonathan, who, while speaking on the country’s success in containing the disease, said the feat was testimony to what Nigerians could achieve if they set aside their differences and work together.

But while the accolades continue to pour in, experts warn that the country should not go to sleep as the Ebola virus is still ravaging three other West African nations: Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. The warning was sounded by experts including Onyebuchi Chukwu, outgoing minister of health and Uduaghan, who is also a medical doctor.

Chukwu, who spearheaded the federal government effort that led to eradicating the Ebola disease, said that  “given the risk of possible re-infection, there is need to maintain the state of high alertness at all our ports of entry. We cannot afford to lower our guard.”

This point of vigilance was also mentioned by President Jonathan who urged Nigerians to remain fully alert and vigilant to guard against a return of the virus. Specifically, Jonathan urged health officials to “continue to actively screen persons entering the country through (the country’s) air, land and sea borders for any sign of the virus.”

This advice makes sense given that the Ebola virus was imported into Nigeria by an American-Liberian citizen called Patrick Sawyer. But while the country still savours its victory over Ebola, there is another health challenge; Lassa fever to worry about. The fever is said to be on the rise in Oyo State and this has compelled some Nigerians to demand that the same gusto exhibited in fighting Ebola should be extended to fighting Lassa fever and others like it.

Olusegun Fasina, a medical microbiologist and coordinator, Response Team for Outbreak of Diseases and Emergency, University College Hospital, UCH, Ibadan, said the number of patients diagnosed with Lassa fever has increased steadily in the last two months.

Gov.-Emmanuel-Uduaghan,-Gov.-Delta-State._6944

Gov.-Emmanuel-Uduaghan,-Gov.-Delta-State

According to him, the management of the hospital is particularly worried about the development as the disease belongs to the same family of haemorrhagic fever like the dreaded Ebola, which has raised global concern in recent times due to the level of fatality it has caused especially in parts of West Africa.

While calling for urgent action to stem the tide, Fasina explained that UCH was able to diagnose the sufferers because it has state-of-the-art equipment to detect any complex cases of unresolved fever under 24 hours, as well as skilled personnel to manage the situation.

“Within the last two months, we have had about 80 samples suspected of haemorrhagic fever of any source. Of the 80, we are having close to 27 being positive. That is about 35 to 40 per cent and it is very high,” he said.

Seyi Idowu, consultant orthopaedic surgeon, National Orthopaedic Hospital, Igbobi, Lagos said if Nigeria should go by the lessons learnt from the Ebola saga, they would be able to eradicate other infectious disease in the country including Lassa fever.

 “The country needs a government official whose duty is to give the public periodic information and guidance on public health. This would to a large extent curb many non-infectious and infectious diseases in Nigeria. The surgeon general in some countries plays this role. This should be separate from the cabinet minister whose job is policy implementation,” he said.

“What we had during the Ebola saga was the health minister labouring albeit with success to combine both the role of the cabinet minister and the nation’s first doctor. These roles are too massive for an individual,” Idowu added. He however pointed out that the ministry of health is currently sponsoring enlightenment programmes and that this should be a continuous effort. But even more important, he said, is the need to “fix our hospitals through better funding, health insurance and health care trust funds” to avoid a situation where “Ebola will go (and) another strange disease will strike.”

But apart from government’s effort, individuals also have a role to play. Chidinma Ajayi, a doctor at Lagos University Teaching Hospital, LUTH told the magazine that maintaining high hygiene is key to stemming infectious diseases because if one person is affected, “it automatically means everybody around that person” is at risk of being infected. “One of the key ways of mainly handling or preventing any form of infectious disease is (maintaining) personal hygiene and cleaning the environment; keeping it clean and hand washing. Some people have the habit of packing dirt without washing their hands and you know rats (vectors) are everywhere and sometimes they urinate or excrete on dirt and this can contain virus,” she said. Ajayi expressed the hope that if government can put things in place, sensitising and monitoring people on the preventive measures, Lassa fever would be dealt a fatal blow like was done Ebola.

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