Nigeria Struggles to Contain Ebola

7 years, 9 months ago - August 20, 2014
LAGOS, Nigeria — Africa's most populous country is scrambling to avoid the fate of nearby nations that have failed to prevent the spread of the deadly Ebola virus.

An epidemic could devastate Nigeria's economy and overrun its meager health facilities. That's why the country has taken drastic measures to contain the spread of Ebola since Liberian-American Patrick Sawyer brought the virus to Lagos on a flight from Liberia on July 20.

The government has set up isolation centers for potential carriers, established checkpoints at border crossings and kept a close eye on anyone who might have come into contact with infected people. President Goodluck Jonathan declared a national emergency last week and called on the public to avoid large gatherings.

Lagos Health Commissioner Jide Idris recommends that Nigerian families keep anyone suspected of carrying the virus in one room. He even suggested roping off rooms and boarding up windows, so other family members and neighbors aren't exposed.

"Our patients are being camped and fenced in with planks to stop exposing others to a virus that is difficult to deal with," he said this week. "We'll not lose the war against Ebola. The government will continue to take every step to check the spread of Ebola in the country."

The Nigerian health system has scored at least one victory, Idris noted. A Lagos doctor who contracted Ebola from Sawyer recovered recently from a short bout with the disease. "He has made a dramatic recovery and has been discharged from the isolation center," Idris said.

The commissioner said the country's creaky health system would be hard-pressed to tackle a widespread outbreak if the virus continues to spread throughout the region at current rates.

The World Health Organization said Tuesday that 84 people in West Africa died from Ebola in three days last week, Thursday through Saturday. Total infections rose to 2,240 cases, including 1,229 deaths. Liberia confronts the worst outbreak, in which there have been 466 deaths. In Guinea, 394 have died; Sierra Leone has had 365 deaths.

In Nigeria, despite the government's precautions, 15 cases have been reported, and four people have died, including Sawyer.

The WHO said the situation in Lagos "looks reassuring" because all those infected were tied to health care workers or had direct contact with Sawyer. Apparently he did not pass the virus to passengers on his flight from Monrovia while he was sick because the 21-day incubation period has lapsed, the WHO said.

Late Tuesday, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf declared a curfew and ordered security forces to quarantine a Monrovia slum that is home to at least 50,000 people where angry residents attacked an Ebola observation center over the weekend. It was the latest dramatic effort by that country to try to stop the spread of the virus.

In Nigeria, Idris said his country's health system can handle the cases, but it's not clear what could happen if an epidemic broke out. Even though a doctors' strike ended last week after a month-long walkout, many physicians have not returned to work.

The shortage of medical personnel is especially problematic, because many Nigerians are liable to accept religious leaders' teachings on how to treat the disease.

Last week, at least two people died and 20 others were hospitalized in central Nigeria after they consumed excessive quantities of salt and bitter kola — a seed used as folk medicine — to ward off the disease.

"We will not wait for the government to give us wrong medicine and die of the virus," said Halima Abubakar, who sells vegetables in Lagos. "We'll try everything, even bathing with salt and traditional herbs, to protect (from) the Ebola virus."

Nigerian Minister of Information Labaran Maku has worked hard to counter the conspiracy theories and superstitions.

"There is no cure yet for the Ebola disease," he said. "People should ignore those in the social media who say that bathing with hot water and salt cures the Ebola disease."

Some Lagos churches under the auspices of Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria have assembled "prayer warriors" — devout people who pray for others — to halt the virus.

"People should not get worried about the Ebola virus, as it's just a name given to a disease like many others," evangelist Emma Obiorah said. "We'll pray together as a nation to ensure God heals all."

Economist Bismarck Rewane, chief executive officer of Financial Derivatives, an investment firm in Lagos, said people need to take action, as well as pray.

His company estimates that fears about Ebola could force investors to hold off spending as much as $3.5 billion in Nigeria by December unless the government demonstrates its ability to curtail the virus.

"The sectors of the economy that will be mostly affected by the fear of the Ebola virus are aviation, tourism and hospitality, trade, medical and agriculture," he said.


Text by USA Today

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