By Chikwe Ihekweazu
As of today, August 11, 2014, there have been 9 cases of the Ebola Virus Disease in Nigeria and 2 deaths. All nine cases have been known primary contacts of the index case, Mr. Patrick Sawyer. At this point therefore, as far as we know, while there has been transmission in Nigeria, it is limited to contacts of the primary case. There is no confirmed community transmission i.e. further transmission from any of the currently infected cases.
We should be worried enough to inform ourselves appropriately but we must not panic. The people most at risk at the moment are healthcare workers and family members caring for ill patients that may have been exposed to the index case, or caring for other returned patients from Sierra Leone, Liberia or Guinea. Specific efforts are going at the moment targeting these two groups. They must follow the infection control guidelines that I presume have been issued to them “religiously”. If you do not fall into any of these categories, please keep yourself informed of the general picture, take normal precautions and go about daily life. If you are caring for anyone with fever, body aches etc, please continue to care for the patient with compassion. The most important question to ask is if there has been contact with any of the nine known cases or a recent travel history to the 3 most affected countries; Guinea, Liberia or Sierra Leone. If this is the case, please call the helpline 0800ebolahelp. Remember to continue taking precautions against other communicable diseases; use a bed net against malaria, condoms to prevent STIs and HIV, boil your water – a cholera outbreak is going on in Plateau State, and if you are coughing for more than 2 weeks, see your doctor; TB killed approximately 27,000 people in Nigeria last year.
An excellent website has been put up – http://www.ebolaalert.org/. This was initiated by the Lagos state government with its partners. The information contained there is accurate and informative. The website could have benefitted with some audiovisuals – find here and here links to two good podcasts in pigin English by Ruona Meyer. Another aspect missing on the website is information for health care workers, here the CDC manual will be useful to some extent.
The virus is spread by contact with body fluids (blood, sweat, semen, saliva) of an infected and sick person. There is no evidence that it can be spread by air, water, or vectors such as mosquitoes or flies. People who are well cannot transmit Ebola. So, it is actually not an easily transmissible virus and proper adherence to infection control principles will protect most people from getting the virus. Next time you visit your doctor or nurse and he/she tries to give you an injection without gloves on – insist on their wearing gloves and report him/her to the appropriate medical/nursing council, and change your care provider. No ifs, no buts. The most important thing now is to break the chain of transmission – the first patient in Nigeria infected 8 others, if we continue at that rate of transmission – we are in big trouble. We must ensure that these nine do not infect any more, and the main way to do this is through effective and consistent implementation of infection control measures.
The “jump” of the virus from an animal host (we still do not know the host animal(s) for sure) to humans is an extremely rare event. Once this happens, the most likely subsequent source of infection is human-to-human transmission. Heating kills the virus so all cooked meat is safe; yes, including suya. The most important risk at the moment is from humans infected with the virus and not animals! No, God has given us brains. He expects us to use them.
They are doing the best they can, given the circumstances. A lot of support is now being received from the World Health Organisation, the US Centres for Disease Control and other partners. There are many Nigerians and International colleagues working for these organisations that are rapidly scaling up the response. Could we have been better prepared? Maybe – but this is not the appropriate time to discuss this. We must all rally around the incredibly brave colleagues that are on the frontline of the response now.
Yes, the strike by medical doctors obviously is a tragedy for the country that doctors and the government have not found a resolution to their differences during this trying period for the county. Our patients need us the most now. Whatever the issues are, I appeal to my colleagues to suspend the strike and rise to the challenge of today. Our patients need us not only to provide clinical care but to restore confidence in the ethos of our profession. In no other country would the index patient have been taken to a private hospital for care as was the case in Nigeria with Mr. Sawyer. Nigerians need us, now more than ever.
The response is being led by the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control, a directorate under the Department of Public Health of the Federal Ministry of Health. As Nigeria is a Federal Republic, the states also have a leading role to play. The responsibilities for the provision of care are poorly delineated by the Nigerian constitution. A National Health Bill that will solve this has been pending between the National Assembly and the President for over eight years. My advice: do not panic. Dealing with the outbreak itself is hard enough; dealing with panicking public will be disastrous. The outbreak can be contained by doing “simple” things diligently and consequently. If you think that someone you know may have been infected, call 0800Ebolahelp.
Chikwe Ihekweazu is on Twitter: @nighealthwatch