Following fears raised by the news of the re-emergence of the Ebola virus disease, Greg Odogwu has proffered the ways to handle the outbreak.
Now that the dreaded Ebola Virus Disease has resurfaced in the Democratic Republic of Congo, we must consciously revive the energy and resources that we mobilised to fight the pandemic to a standstill when it invaded our country in 2014.
Already, the Nigerian government has reintroduced the border screening methods that were instituted during those Ebola days. Although this is commendable, government must also take it to the next level. The same national environmental health consciousness that was ignited then through government sponsored publicity and sensitisation campaigns should be reintroduced. Also, it should not dilly dally on the release of funds for any of such preventive measures.
The recent national outbreak of cerebro-spinal meningitis in some parts of the country showed clearly that we are still moving backwards when it comes to public health infrastructure and administration. When one thought that we had developed a better emergency response system through the Ebola response, it becomes disappointing to realise that we did not learn from the past.
Yet again, one might perceive that the Nigerian Ebola experience was an isolated success story, not actually achieved because of the response strategy, but because of the willingness of the elite to take public health seriously, as Ebola spelt doom to their lifestyle on a personal level. Our leaders took it serious because Ebola was a leveler of sorts. Unlike Lassa fever and meningitis, the deadly disease is able to rapidly penetrate every social class, diplomatic confine and elite cocoon – no matter how shielded or elevated.
On a global level, Nigeria being a relatively rich country, proved its mettle as a regional leader. The virus that spread rapidly across borders and overwhelmed the health systems of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, was stopped on its tracks when it found its way into our country. Our government even sent medical missionaries to our neighbours as part of our interventions to help these beleaguered nations survive the hazard.
Nevertheless, after the Ebola outbreak in our shores, had we instituted the right structures to avoid a future repeat? The answer is no. Immediately after the World Health Organisation declared us Ebola-free, everybody dropped his weapon and withdrew to business as usual. The public and private schools threw away the hand-washing basin and soup. The banks, companies and public institutions flung the sanitisers into the woods. The neighbourhoods stopped caring about sanitation and hygiene.
What is more, the government, which officially announced at the heat of the Ebola pandemic that it was going to employ hundreds of environmental health officers, suddenly went silent on the matter. This is not supposed to be so. Environmental consciousness should be part of our personal and national lives on a day-to-day basis. It enhances and sustains our survival as a people.
Now that Ebola is back, we must go back to this sanitation and hygiene consciousness as a matter of priority. Our government must employ more environmental health officers at the local government level, because these are the real foot soldiers whose duty it is to secure the first defence line in Nigeria’s public health architecture. They are what used to be known as ‘sanitary inspectors’ during the colonial and post-colonial era: the dreaded ‘wole wole’ of south-western Nigeria and the former federal capital city, Lagos.
This is because, considering that we have a very vast national borderline with uncountable ingress points all over the hinterland, screening at the airports, seaports and official land borders is not just enough.
Furthermore, it is also time to look at Ebola from a wider and more global perspective. Ebola is a zoonotic disease. It has an animal reservoir, which was generally believed to be wild bats. When humans come in contact with wild animals in some parts of Africa, they can be exposed to the virus. In 2013, the pandemic began with an outbreak triggered by a human infection most likely resulting from contact with bats. An 18 month-old boy was patient zero in Guinea. He died of Ebola not long after playing in a bat-infested hollow tree. The virus then spread rapidly from person to person over land borders and air.
Now, it is interesting to note the connection between our contemporary environmental problems and this epidemic. The boy who died in Guinea had easy access to a tree full of bats because, to quote the World Health Organisation, “much of the surrounding forest area (around the village) has, however, been destroyed by foreign mining and timber operations. Some evidence suggests that the resulting forest loss, estimated at more than 80 per cent, brought potentially infected wild animals and the bat species thought to be the virus’ natural reservoir, into closer contact with human settlements.”
This simply means that deforestation and problems arising from artisanal mining and illegal logging has brought the risk of Ebola outbreak. Who knows other diseases that are still lurking in the dark shadows of potential eco-hazards?
Moreover, experts have also suggested that climate change has affected plant and animal habitats, thus bringing wild animals in closer contact with humans in sub-Saharan Africa.
And the bad news is that global warming and climate change has not stopped; it is in fact getting worse than it was in the last Ebola outbreak. Deforestation has not stopped either. I read in a special report on Ebola, by a United Nations information hub, that palm oil companies took advantage of the distraction of the Ebola outbreak to increase their land grabs in Liberia. Therefore, rather than being resolved, the problem is exacerbated.
In Nigeria, we face serious environmental challenges, which our government should tackle frontally. For instance, it is now common to always hear of serial resurgence of Lassa fever, but has our leaders made the connection between the recurrent outbreaks and deforestation and desert encroachment? How much of the so-called Ecological Fund has the Federal Government actually used for these ecological exigencies? How many eco-related research institutes and centres of excellence are available and adequately funded?
Those rats that cause Lassa fever might just be flooding into our human habitats and neighborhoods because their homes in the nearby bushes and forests have been burnt (bush burning menace), or taken over by corporate and scrapped (land grab), or washed away (flooding and desertification)!
So, as we prepare ourselves with all precautionary measures against the fresh Ebola outbreak in Africa, we should also take a wholistic defensive stance against all environmental concerns because they are all interconnected. The health, agricultural, environmental, security, water, energy, petroleum, science and technology institutions must be strengthened with a view to entrenching a long-lasting disaster risk preparedness and response infrastructure on an inter-ministerial matrix that will outlive the present generation.
Written by Greg Odogwu