The federal government has assured us that no case of the deadly Ebola virus has been reported yet anywhere in the country. The minister of health, Prof. Onyebuchi Chukwu, was quite categorical when he spoke after last week’s Executive Council (cabinet) meeting at the Aso Rock presidential villa. We should heave a sigh of relief given the bad news coming from sister West African countries, particularly Guinea, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire and Mali where Ebola is said to have killed over 90 people already.
However, this assurance can be a problem in itself in that it may lead to complacency on the part of those who are expected to take actions to ensure that Nigeria remains safe. We already saw the sign of a potentially big problem in the verbal blunder the other day of the Minister of Information, Mr. Labaran Maku. Addressing waiting journalists after the Exco meeting, he ignorantly declared that should Ebola break out in this country the government had enough vaccines in stock to fight it. Shocking, that coming from him! The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said emphatically that there is no known cure as yet for Ebola, believed to kill nine in every 10 infected persons.
Dr. C.J. Peters, in his book, Virus Hunter, says “of the over fourteen hundred known human pathogens, Ebola is by far considered one of the scariest.” Its symptoms are pretty familiar. Starting with a sore throat, it quickly graduates to fever, muscle pain, headaches, vomiting, diarrhea, organ failure and blood loss. The virus shuts down the body’s immune system. It is highly contagious and transmitted by contact with the fluids of infected people or animals. The natural hosts of this virus are wild animals. That is why health officials have advised against eating bush meat especially that which is not well cooked. Infected humans can pass the virus on through sex and direct contact with blood, mucus and other body fluids.
It is good news that this killer disease has not come down on us as suddenly as it did in Guinea and Liberia. It means we have a bit of space and time to manoeuvre. But it also means that the health authorities must move fast to shut out the virus. Ghana, for instance, has not wasted time in closing its borders with Togo, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast. It has trained port and border workers to detect signs of the disease, set up a national committee, restocked testing equipment and established a telephone hotline. This is what we must do too.
We must not wait for the disease to hit us. Then we shall resort to the usual fire brigade method whereby funds are released at the last minute and health personnel deployed in an uncoordinated manner. The danger in this is that funds are easily stolen and help fails to reach the needy at the right time.
Luckily, WHO has offered useful tips to countries like Nigeria with very weak health infrastructure, “including surveillance for illness compatible with EVD, and to carefully review any unusual patterns, in order to ensure identification and reporting of human infections, and encourages countries to continue national health preparedness actions.” It also mentions build trust, respect for public concerns, early announcement, transparency and advance planning. Nigerian health authorities would do well to take the WHO suggestions in order to save precious lives.