AN EXEMPLARY FEAT

Nigeria 2015 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | FOCUS: EBOLA

Nigeria has been declared officially free of Ebola in what the WHO dubbed a spectacular success story.

In December 2013, the most widespread epidemic of the Ebola virus in history began in Guinea and quickly spread to Liberia and Sierra Leone. The Ebola virus, an often-fatal illness transmitted to people from wild animals, which spreads among the human population through human-to-human transmission, was brought to Nigeria by Liberian diplomat Patrick Sawyer when he flew from Liberia to Lagos on July 20, 2014. Having collapsed at the airport, Sawyer was quickly isolated in Lagos' First Consultant Hospital, where he soon succumbed to the disease.

However, several Nigerians that had been in contact with Sawyer were infected with the virus. In total there were 19 confirmed cases and one probable case that stemmed from Sawyer's. Eight of these cases resulted in death, including the doctor who had first treated Sawyer and diagnosed him with the Ebola virus. The fact that Ebola had now been imported to Lagos sent shockwaves around the world. The WHO described Nigeria as “a powder keg for a disease outbreak." It was feared that the daily influx of workers to the city, combined with the crowded and unsanitary conditions that millions in the city live in, would provide an extremely fertile breeding ground for Ebola. The fact that it didn't is due to the efficient response of the Nigerian Federal Government in conjunction with international health organizations.

Nigeria has been battling polio until very recently and, as a result, the country has a strong polio surveillance system and an emergency command center, which the Federal Government used as a backbone for its immediate implementation of a coordinated approach that included the training of 1,800 health workers, who made 18,000 visits to 900 people suspected of having been in contact with a person diagnosed with the disease. This approach was coordinated from the Ebola emergency operation center in Lagos, which was the nexus between the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Health, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Médecins sans Frontières, and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Isolation wards were immediately established, as were designated Ebola treatment facilities. Vehicles and mobile phones, with specially adapted programs, were made available to aid real-time reporting as the investigations moved forward. These factors combined contributed to an increased capacity of health workers to aggressively trace suspected cases and contacts across the entire country. Identified contacts were placed in isolation and monitored for 21 days, and contacts that tried to circumvent this procedure were tracked down by special intervention teams, who returned them to medical facilities for further monitoring.

The Federal Government embarked on a widespread information campaign to raise awareness for the disease, and more importantly, informed Nigerians of the kind of preventive and precautionary measures that they could undertake. Misinformation about possible cures for the disease was effectively censored, and teams of “social mobilizers" canvassed areas around the homes of Ebola contacts, reaching around an additional 26,000 households with health information.

In the end, the efforts of the Nigerian Federal Government to contain and eradicate the virus proved to be fruitful when there was no sign of new cases. As a result, the WHO declared Nigeria free of the Ebola virus on October 20, 2014, which is testament to the great achievements of all involved in combating the spread of the disease in Africa's most populous country. Defeating Ebola was certainly no small feat, especially considering the havoc that it is still wreaking in Nigeria's neighboring countries. It motivated the WHO to call Nigeria's response “a piece of world-class epidemiological detective work," and has moved others to say that Nigeria should serve as an example for other West African countries in their fight against the disease.