Four years after beating off an outbreak of Ebola virus disease, which threatened the entire West African region, Nigeria is again on the lookout. A new outbreak has been reported in the Democractic Republic of Congo, and Nigerian health officials have battened down the hatches in “preparedness” mode.
But is it really prepared? Lagos might be. A metropolis of some 20 million inhabitants now, it was ground zero in the 2014 Ebola outbreak. And Nigeria should be too, says Jide Idris, Lagos health commissioner.
Idris has been health commissioner for Lagos across three separate executive administration’s. His ministry was crucial to the first response when Ebola entered Nigeria—the moment Liberian-American Patrick Sawyer flew into the international airport in Lagos with a fever that later turned fatal.
This week the Nigeria Health Watch named him a person of interest, and had him guest an two hours of interaction on how he had led the transformation of Lagos’ health sector—and what lessons the rest of Nigeria could glean from it.
In addition to the big three, political commitment was important—the need for having a political will and trust that enables an administrator work independently and reliably, cutting out as much red-tape as possible in times of emergency.
The Ebola outbreak had little time for paper work. Sawyer needed buried, the crematorium was ordered fired up, and the federal authorities were made to contact Liberia for response. But it was Ebola, and workers were reluctant to touch the body. They needed to be paid N15,000 each, and no time for paper work to process all that.
The Ebola outbreak came months after Idris delivered a lecture on the virus. Since the awful experience, Lagos has been simulating emergencies to determine response and protocols in any situation from bomb blast to flooding.
“As a mega city, you need to create structures. Whether you like it or not, you are going to have a disaster,” says Idris.
Partnerships are improving reach with institutes. With the 2014 outbreak, an emergency operations centre sprang at the Mainland Hospital, Yaba. Confirmation testing was done on site. Without that, samples would need to be sent to Geneva, and “if we had to wait for that, many would have died,” said Idris. “We were convinced we could do it in Yaba.”
Partnerships since then are seeing growing stages of a level-three biosafety laboratory, complete with a biobank, biosecurity, and biobanking. In English, it means lab will have facilities able to bank biological materials, enhance security against biological agents and run a “bank” of biological specimens that aren’t just viruses.
Tissues and biopsies to test for non communicable diseases can even make it into the bank for further studies. That’s how hungry Nigeria can and should be, after a close shave with Ebola.
“We are not 100% ready, but we are better than where we were, and we have a long way to go,” said Idris.