By Garba Shehu
NIGERIA with her population of 160 million-plus is at the door-step of a major disaster- the Ebola virus disease (EVD) – unless by some miracle it steers away its course or we take deliberate policies and actions that shut our door against it. Ebola is a cruel disease. It kills easily but painfully. It also spreads easily. One person infected by the virus can infect the entire passengers in a bus or a passenger aircraft.
What is the Ebola virus disease?
The World Health Organisation, WHO, describes it as a “severe acute viral illness often characterized by the sudden onset of fever, intense weakness, muscle pain, headache and sore throat. This is followed by vomiting, diarrhea, rash, impaired kidney and liver malfunction, and in some cases, both internal and external bleeding. Laboratory findings include low white blood cells and platelet counts and elevated liver enzymes.”
As of April 5, the World Health Organisation reported 127 cases of Ebola, of which 86 people have died in Guinea. The current wave of outbreak is believed to have originated from that country. As of this date, Liberia has reported six suspected cases, two confirmed deaths. On April 3, Mali reported three suspected cases. Sierra Leone has equally reported possible cases although WHO has reported no confirmations.
In reaction to these incidents, many countries have taken various measures to shield their populations from the EVD attacks.
Saudi Arabia has taken their preventive measures by blocking visas for Guinea and Liberia. Morocco early last week announced extra health screening measures at entry points to the country, in particular Casablanca airport. Senegal has closed its border with Guinea. Also last week, participants at the 16th International Congress on Infectious Diseases called for joint efforts by West African governments to contain the spread of the disease.
So far, our government in Nigeria has been giving assurances that there are no reported cases. No alarm has been raised, which is good because while there is need for measures in place to avert the EVD spread, governments have a responsibility to ensure that they don’t create panic situations. This then calls for carefully designed strategies to mobilize the population in a way that is effective. You also have to deal with the problem of the credibility of the informant.
In this country, as in many others, it has become fashionable, for sometime, for health authorities and multilateral agencies to issue frequent warnings about this or that outbreak of disease or some so-called research such that it has become impossible to take them seriously. Too much of such warnings have left the population generally confused. Crying wolf too often ensures that there will be little or no vigilance when the actual threat comes. This is the unfortunate situation our authorities must take cognizance of in dealing with the work of public enlightenment concerning the EVD spread. Although we are fortunate to not have recorded a single case so far, we still need to be aware and steadfast. Information is power. Once government provides the necessary awareness, it will trigger efforts among the population to protect themselves.
WHO encourages countries to strengthen surveillance, “including surveillance for illness compatible with EVD, and to carefully review any unusual patterns, in order to ensure identification and reporting of human infections under IHR (2005), and encourages countries to continue national health preparedness actions.”
The WHO requests these critical practices in outbreak communication: Build trust: Build positive public perceptions of the motives, honesty, and competence of authorities. Announce early: Early announcement contributes to early containment and transparency. Be transparent: Foster communication that is candid, easily understood, complete and accurate. Respect public concerns: Effective risk communication is a dialogue between technical experts and public; do not describe how the public “should react.”
Plan in advance: Outbreak communication must be part of outbreak management planning from the onset.
The Ebola virus, according to medical authorities, is spread through contact with body fluids, such as the sweat, blood, and saliva of an infected person or animal. According to Google, doctors say the only way to contain the outbreak is to stop further infections. And to avoid infection, people are generally advised to avoid handshakes, bush meat, travel to areas with suspected outbreaks and to avoid contacts with people who have the infection.
Nigeria must, in addition, step up surveillance at all points of entry. So far, those countries affected have, with international help, managed their crises fairly well. A country with our type of near-absence of public order would have witnessed a reign of chaos.