Nigeria reported Sub-Saharan Africa’s first coronavirus case on Friday (Feb. 28), an Italian business traveler who arrived from Milan. This interview with Dr Chikwe Ihekweazu last month explains the country’s preparations ahead of time.
What measures need to be put in place to contain the virus?
The novel coronavirus is ‘new’ and we’re learning more about it nearly every day. The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control has established a ‘coronavirus preparedness group’ that includes representatives from Port Health Services of the Federal Ministry of Health and other stakeholders. It meets daily to review the situation globally, assess the risk of spread and improve on Nigeria’s level of preparedness based on new findings and insights.
At the points of entry, screening has been heightened, particularly for passengers coming from China. This includes temperature checks, specific questions on known symptoms of the novel coronavirus and travel history.
We have also provided a public health advisory to Nigerians on what to do if they suspect that there is a case of coronavirus as well as how to protect themselves.
Over the last three years, we have focused on strengthening our emergency coordination, surveillance, public health laboratory and risk communications capacities. We continue to build on this to ensure that we are better prepared in the event of an outbreak.
What systems, already in place to deal with Ebola, will come in handy? What more needs to be done?
One of the key lessons from our response to the Ebola outbreak was the need to build systems in ‘peace time’ that can be used during outbreaks. Over the last three years, we have strengthened capacity at our National Reference Laboratory to provide molecular diagnosis for all epidemic prone diseases and highly infectious pathogens such as the Ebola virus.
For coronavirus, the capacity to test depends on laboratory equipment, primers specific for pathogens and technical expertise. At the moment, we are receiving advice from the WHO on gaining access to the primers to be used for this ‘new’ virus. Our National Reference Laboratory is the system in place for diagnosis of pathogens such as the coronavirus.
We have also supported 22 states to establish emergency operations centres. These serve as coordination platforms and are networked to our national incident coordination centre. Each state is better prepared to coordinate within and across their borders in the event of an outbreak.
We also used lessons from the Ebola outbreak to strengthen our risk communications capacity. We recognise the critical importance of ensuring members of the public are equipped with the right information. In the last week, Nigeria Centre for Disease Control has issued a public health advisory to Nigerians informing them of our preparedness and how to stay protected from coronavirus.
In December 2019, we completed the training of rapid response teams in all states in Nigeria. All 36 states have a team ready to be deployed in the event of an outbreak.
Overall, we continue to build strong systems that will enable the prevention, early detection and prompt response to infectious disease outbreaks.
The Ebola outbreak prompted the governments of many African countries to invest in the establishment of National Public Health Institutes. In these countries including Nigeria, the capacity for outbreak response is better streamlined with a clear coordination platform.
Large scale outbreaks require a high level of technical expertise, financial resources and other systems to quickly control. These institutes ensure that countries do not have to wait till there is another Ebola outbreak, before identifying resources for response.
The Ebola outbreak taught us a lot of lessons, including the urgent need for overall health system strengthening. This has improved in many countries, but with a lot of room for improvement.
The Conversation Africa interviewed Dr Chikwe Ihekweazu