In a red alert, Department of Port Health begins detailed checks on passengers from West and Central Africa
In a bid to ensure that the Ebola virus does not spread, following the death of a Liberian national in Lagos last week, the Federal Government yesterday ordered six persons made up of Liberians and other West Africans from Ebola-afflicted countries currently attending an ECOWAS meeting in Calabar to return to Lagos for further examination and screening.
In what can be described as contact tracing, THISDAY gathered that the crew of the airline that brought the deceased to Nigeria and all the personnel of the hospital where he died have been screened. Also, being targeted for screening are all the passengers that flew in from Monrovia, made a stopover in Lome before coming to Nigeria. There are 30 or so passengers, mostly non-Nigerians, that have been identified for screening.
It is believed that the federal health authorities have ordered more equipment to detect carriers of the virus. The move came amid growing concern on how to prevent travellers from Ebola-infested countries from entering Nigeria.
Minister of Health, Prof. Onyebuchi Chukwu, in an exclusive interview, told THISDAY that government had to call for the return of the six persons in Calabar to Lagos so as to ascertain whether there were other cases of Ebola virus in Nigeria.
A Liberian government official, Mr. Patrick Sawyer, who was billed to attend the ECOWAS meeting in Calabar took ill from the contagious Ebola on Tuesday, July 22 and later died on Friday, July 25. Chukwu, in the interview with THISDAY, denied that Sawyer was also in Calabar, stressing that, "everyone is doing his or her job; the Ministry of Health is not [the] Immigration, we have Port Health Service in all the international airports and seaports. We also have offices across the 22 legal crossing points taking care of such cases."
The minister explained that it was in that regard that, "Mr. Sawyer was immediately handled to isolate him from the public. We have also ordered the recall of six other persons attending the meeting in Calabar to Lagos to be observed, screened and examined," he said.
Chukwu informed THISDAY that he had been in talks with the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland, the Regional Director and WHO Country Representative in Nigeria in an effort to control the crisis. The minister also pleaded with the media, mostly, private media organisations to, as a matter of urgency, assist government in creating more awareness about the disease.
Though the minister had received assurance from Minister of Information, Labaran Maku, on the government's move to sensitise the public about Ebola using public media outfits like the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) and Radio Nigeria, Chukwu said more commitment is still expected from the private media.
Meanwhile, the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) said the service had been playing its role but any issue dealing with health should be directed to the right authority.
The NIS position is seen as a response to criticisms trailing the advent of Ebola virus in the country. Chief among government agencies being accused of negligence is the Immigration Service, whose dilly-dallying on several warnings of a possible Ebola outbreak in Nigeria is said to have slit the door open for patients from countries ravaged by the disease to enter Nigeria.
The establishment of the case of the virus contacted by Sawyer and his sudden death has raised questions regarding the role of the NIS.
But according to the NIS Public Relations Officer (PRO), Chukwuemeka Obuah, "issues bordering on health at our entry points are the responsibility of the Port Health Authority, which is under the Federal Ministry of Health."
Obuah, in response to THISDAY investigation on the steps taken by the NIS to prevent Ebola patients from entering the country, contended that "we all work at the country's borders and the outbreak of the virus in neighbouring countries have been communicated to all agencies including the NIS by the office of the Hon. Minister for Health for us take precautions and also identify symptoms associated with infected persons."
There were also attempts by THISDAY to speak with Cross River State Commissioner of Health, Prof Angela Oyo-Ita, which were fruitless, as she was not available for comments. Neither did she return the calls THISDAY put across to her nor reply text messages sent to her.
Meanwhile, it has now been confirmed that the first victim of the disease in Nigeria who died in Lagos on Friday had arrived the country from Lome, Togo aboard an Asky Airlines flight. A passenger airline founded on the initiative of West African governments, Asky Airlines has its head office in Lomé, Togo. Its flight operations extend across several West and Central African countries from its hub at Lomé-Tokoin Airport.
Also, the Department of Port Health at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos has started additional checks on arriving passengers, especially from West and Central African destinations.
On Friday, the Department scheduled a sensitisation meeting to be held on Wednesday to map out ways of sensitising passengers who are travelling to the countries that are known to have the disease and schedule a programme on the monitoring in-bound passengers from the West and Central African countries. THISDAY also gathered that airlines operating to these destinations are taking extra measures to check the passengers and spray the aircraft before and after boarding the passengers. A major Nigerian airline has expressed the likelihood of stopping its operations to Liberia, Sierra Leone and other destinations in the sub-region if the disease persists.