Red Alert On Ebola Epidemic

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At last, the Ebola Virus Disease is already in Nigeria as a Liberian identified as Mr. Patrick Sawyer, who came into Lagos aboard a flight from Monrovia, was confirmed dead from the killer virus after being hospitalised at a Lagos clinic, where the 40-year-old suspect had undergone treatment after battling unsuccessfully with the ailment. The death marks a new and alarming cross-border development of the disease – which Doctors Without Borders have described as ‘out of control’ – having snowballed into the world’s biggest epidemic and spreading across three West African countries. At least, about 700 people were said to have died in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone since the virus was diagnosed early this year.

Ebola is simply regarded as one of the deadliest viruses on earth, not only because it has no known cure, but also because it is one of the terrible infections in that it could kill within hours of symptom, irrespective of whether an infected person gets treated or not. The initial symptoms, as had been said, include intense weakness, sudden fever, sore throat, muscle pain, which could result into diarrhoea, vomiting, internal and external bleeding complications.

The Ebola virus has been traced to wild bats, the carcass of gorillas, monkeys or chimpanzees while infection in man could be through contact with body fluids such as the blood and saliva of an infected person. In 1976, it was first discovered in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire), where it got its name from the Ebola River Valley with five different strains out of which three variants: Bundibugyo ebolavirus, Zaire ebolavirus, and Sudan ebolavirus, have been associated with the notorious outbreaks in Africa.

To tame this disease, a promising new trial for an Ebola vaccine in 2011 has ascertained its ability to protect against infection in mice. The results, which were published in the popular journal, Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, shows that 80 per cent of mice that received four vaccinations over a two-month period survived after being infected with the virus.

Although, previously developed Ebola vaccines had existed but their effectiveness was found to have deteriorated over time, as the viral particles in the vaccine got damaged after long-term storage. In short, the Ebolavirus appears not to have any vaccines developed to control the disease, making it very dangerous. Researchers themselves, including the respected physician, Sheik Umar Khan, widely known as a hero for the epidemic fight, became a victim too alongside two American aid workers that tested positive for EVD, while another doctor at Liberia’s largest hospital, the John F. Kennedy Memorial Medical Centre in Monrovia, were reportedly infected and killed by the disease. The worrisome nature of the disease once drew the global attention, through the movie, Outbreak, a 1995 American medical disaster film, directed by Wolfgang Petersen.

As a precautionary measure, the World Health Organisation has warned people living in high risk areas such as West Africa not to eat bush meat for the time being because hunters and consumers of meats of monkey, chimpanzee and other exotic animals are highly susceptible to infection.

The WHO also advises health workers to be at alert; wear personal protective equipment, observe universal basic precautions when attending to suspected or confirmed cases by reporting to local health authorities immediately. Other measures recommended include properly washing of hands, avoiding close contact with infected persons and ensuring that objects used by the sick are decontaminated and properly disposed off.

With Nigeria being in close proximity to the affected countries, then the question is how prepared are we, to tame this monster? While the efforts of the Lagos State Government are highly commendable, the Federal Government through the Minister of Health, Prof. Onyebuchi Chukwu, has given assurance that the government was on top of the situation. Apart from the checks put in place by the Nigeria Immigration Service at border posts, the government should go the extra length by quickly deploying better surveillance to detect cases of the virus through enhanced cross-border collaboration, better engagement with local communities especially the traditional rulers, market women, religious leaders; establishing closer cooperation with the United Nations; the nation’s Centre for Disease Control, state ministries of health, general hospitals; federal medical centres; teaching hospitals; livestock department of the Federal Ministry of Agriculture; National Emergency Management Agency as well as the United States Centre for Disease Control.

There is also the need for the presence of medical experts at seaports and airports to control the influx of people, especially from endemic countries where the infection has been reported, although controlling movement of persons in a country with borders as porous as ours could also be tasking.

No doubt, the ravaging EVD outbreak deserves the necessary attention, going by the fact that our poorly funded, ill-equipped and strike-ridden health delivery system may be incapable of curtailing this time bomb. Ebola, which could kill 90 per cent of those infected, could still be curtailed such that the casualty rate could drop to almost 60 per cent due to early treatment. Just like the way Liberia’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has declared a national Ebola emergency in her country, the Nigerian government should not do less.

There is the cultural dimension that should not be overlooked. It is amazing that since Ebola broke out, some people have refused to admit that it is real. They simply perceive the epidemic as “divine retribution” for past sins while mob groups were found to have attacked members of the Doctors Without Borders, forcing the group and other humanitarian workers such as the Red Cross, to abandon their mission to save lives.

Some local leaders were also said to be spreading rumours and superstition that “the white people” were merely conducting experiments and so the epidemic is purely a farce. This is a fallacy that should be erased from the people’s minds if this deadly disease is to be stamped out. This wrong notion is still widely held in many African societies culminating into ignorance that have negatively contributed to the spread of other deadly diseases like HIV/AIDS.

Conclusively, there is the need for aggressive and effective management of information and tracing of suspects that have had contact with the dead Liberian in Lagos. The problem of corruption remains a big blow to this fight as we know that many of our officials at points of entries seem not to be doing enough to screen the influx of the people into the country. Many of them just look the other way for pecuniary reasons when screening travellers.

Needed equipment are hardly made available in our public institutions. Bush meat, a major vector of the virus, is still being sold everywhere and openly without any control. Again, how functional are the telephone lines provided as emergency contacts? It is common knowledge that callers of such lines are hardly attended to in times of emergencies. In most cases, when such calls are picked at all, they abuse the caller without offering any assistance. The e-mail address provided is hardly functional as enquiries are not replied to. These loose ends should be tightened. It is for these reasons that I am afraid that we may still not be well prepared to effectively contain the spread of Ebola.

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