It is either we, as a nation, were over confident, unreasonably so, that the killer Ebola virus disease that broke out in Guinea in February was too far away to reach our shores, or simply fatalistic. Unreasonable because we forgot that Guinea, where the first cases were reported in February, is in West Africa and a member of the 16-member ECOWAS grouping just as we are. Also, air travel has reduced considerably the time it takes to move from one country to another. Not to think of our long and porous borders, making it easy for one to hop out of one country and into another. We also forgot to mark the trajectory of the epidemic: Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and now Nigeria.
The first Ebola fatality in this country occurred last week in Lagos. It came by air from Liberia through Accra, Ghana. The man was a Liberia-born American who had just buried his sister killed by Ebola and was in Lagos en route the United States. He took ill in-flight and collapsed on alighting at Lagos International airport. He died two days later in a private hospital in Lagos’ Obalende district. On Monday, our Minister of Health, Prof. Onyebuchi Chukwu, announced in Abuja that the lady Nigerian doctor who attended to the Patrick Sawyer had been diagnosed as having contracted the deadly disease and seven paramedics in the same hospital where the doctor works have been quarantined. The death in Lagos has brought to 880 the number of people who have been killed by the disease so far in four countries.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has given a rather discouraging or alarming prognosis. “The outbreak is by far the largest ever in the nearly four-decade history of this disease…in terms of number of cases (over 1, 323) and deaths…it is the largest in terms of geographical areas already affected and others at immediate risk of further spread. It warned that all the 16 nations in the region remained at the risk of “importation” of the virus.
It is sad that our political and health authorities waited this long for the virus to “fly” into our country before taking actions such as putting out information to the public on the nature of the disease, what sanitary measures to take to avoid contracting it since it is spread mainly by contacts with infected persons, training of personnel to manage reported cases and stocking of palliative drugs; surveillance at the country’s sea, land and air entry points to reduce the importation of the virus.
Coupled with poor publicity campaign and weak public health infrastructure, it is understandable that news of the one death and 8 confirmed cases in Lagos alone has caused a near hysteria across the country. Inadequate information has led to several myths building around the epidemic. Worse, the virus has come at a time the country’s doctors are on a nationwide strike. Indeed, they have downed tools since June this year. It is shocking that the federal government with which the doctors disagree over the poor state of the nation’s health facilities is carrying on as if all is well.
The arrival of the deadly Ebola, we pray and hope, will force a rethink on the part of the government to come down from its high horse of recalcitrance to talk with the striking doctors. We are confronted with an emergency and doctors who are critical stakeholders cannot be left out of the campaign to contain it.