The Guardian (Lagos)

19 August 2014

Nigeria: NBA Conference in Owerri and the Challenge of Ebola Outbreak

CONCERNS are being raised over the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) annual general conference (AGC) scheduled to hold in Owerri from August 24 to 29, 2014 in view of the pandemic, Ebola Virus Decease (EVD) that has entered Nigeria.

This is a gathering of more than 10,000 lawyers from within and outside Nigeria thereby raising fears that if adequate measures are not put in place to safeguard the people, the outcome may be unpalatable to all.

While some lawyers polled, asked for outright cancelation of the conference, others said it should be shifted to such a time that the pandemic has been completely been curtailed by government.

Last Tuesday, a Nigerian staff of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) died of the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD), becoming the third victim of the dreaded virus since its emergence in Nigeria.

The victim, one Jatto Asihu Abdulqudir, a Protocol Assistant at the ECOWAS Liaison Office in Lagos, was among those who assisted the Liberian diplomat Patrick Sawyer, the index case believed to have brought the disease to Nigeria. Sawyer exhibited symptoms of the disease on arrival in Lagos on July 20, for an ECOWAS Conference, and died on July 25 at a private hospital in Lagos.

This incident again gives vent to the highly fatal nature of the ebola virus disease. The Ebola virus has no known cure and up to 90 percent fatality rate. There is no vaccine or specific treatment for Ebola. Outbreaks can spread rapidly, with an incubation period as brief as two days. Therefore, preventing the ebola virus from spreading remains the best option.

Already, this is the largest and worst ebola virus outbreak in history, with the death toll now at 1,014 from a total of 1,848 cases.

In Nigeria, 169 primary and secondary contacts of the index case have been placed under surveillance, with 9 having developed EVD, bringing the total number of cases in Nigeria to 10. Of these 10, four have died while the rest are currently quarantined in Lagos. Further tracing of contacts is ongoing.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared the current ebola outbreak an International Health Emergency requiring extraordinary response in an effort to contain the pandemic. It has also taken the unusual step of declaring as ethical the use of ZMAPP, an untested and unproven drug, to try to contain the scourge. Though the role of the Federal Government in preventing the emergence of the ebola virus disease in Nigeria remains questionable, the government has followed the WHO example by declaring the ebola outbreak a national emergency.

However, the Ebola threat is real. Many countries have put their healthcare and ports personnel on the highest alert.

Barely a week ago, Ken Isaacs, the spokesman for Samaritan's Purse whose two American staff contracted the virus while treating patients in Liberia, warned the United States Congress that Ebola is going to emerge with a fury in Nigeria in about three weeks due to Sawyer's case. The United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has also issued a Level 2 Travel Alert on Nigeria, warning travelers to take precautionary measures to minimize their risks of contracting the disease.

The above scenario paints a grim picture of the serious hazards posed by the current pandemic in the face of weak healthcare systems and scarce national resources. Even with less than 15 EVD cases, Health Minister Onyebuchi Chukwu has raised an alarm on the shortage of care-givers to treat Ebola victims, asking for more volunteers. The ebola virus poses a serious threat to care-givers, some of whom have

died in the process of treating patients. It is therefore better imagined than described if the current state of the Ebola outbreak in Nigeria is allowed to exacerbate. Accordingly, it is expected that all concerned will act in a manner that aids a speedy containment of the Ebola outbreak.

It is against this backdrop the NBA leadership should critically assess the threats posed by the AGC to lawyers in particular and generally to efforts by local and international stakeholders to stem the spread of the ebola virus disease.

Given that the AGC is reputed as the largest gathering of lawyers on earth, with over 10,000 lawyers in attendance, and consistent with the mode of transmission of the Ebola virus including direct physical contact with body fluids of an infected person such as blood, saliva, urine and sweat or contact with objects contaminated by these fluids, it is incumbent on the NBA leadership not only to put measures in place to safeguard participants at the week-long event, but to critically assess the adequacy of emergency healthcare measures aimed to protect lawyers, exhibitors and visitors.

This is the least that can be done under this grave national emergency. No effort should be spared to contain this potential pandemic that is already affecting the socio-economic and religious life of the nation.

Flowing from the above assessment, if the NBA leadership comes to the view that the risk of Ebola virus spread cannot be adequately managed at this time due to inadequate healthcare facilities and personnel and the inherently electric nature of AGC activities, perhaps a postponement of the conference may be a valid option.

But in a statement signed by the NBA president, Okey Wali (SAN), to assure participants that all is well, the association said it has taken adequate measures to safeguard lives of those who would participate at the conference.

The leadership stressed the need for personal hygiene and added that it is putting anti-ebola precautions for lawyers that would attend the conference in Owerri between August 24 and 29, 2014.

The aasociation however deplored the striking action of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) at this time of emergency and thereafter asked the striking doctors to return to work so that ebola pandemic can be curtailed.

NBA also asked the Federal Government to rescind its decision of sacking all resident doctors, arguing that it would compound the health problem the country is facing at the moment.

The statement reads in full: "Nigerian Bar Association has noted with concern the outbreak of Ebola virus disease in Nigeria. From what we can see, the Federal Government appears to be on top of the issue and we can only urge them to do whatever that is needed to contain the Ebola crisis. We also all need to exercise more care about our personal hygiene.

"The Nigerian Bar Association is putting adequate anti-Ebola precautions for its members attending the 2014 Annual General Conference in Owerri from 24th to 29th August of this month. In the interim, we will again be appealing to the Nigerian Medical Association to call off its strike, so that we can all join hands in dealing with this emergency. The Federal Government is also implored to rescind its reported decision to sack Resident Doctors. This is not the time for any squabbles."

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