“We Knew If Ebola Takes Root in Nigeria, All Africa Will Be on Fire”
At the jetty in Freetown, waiting for a boat to cross the wide estuary to the airport which is on the far side from the city, I encounter Professor Abdulsalami Nasidi, project director of the Nigerian Centres for Disease Control. He led the stunningly successful fight against Ebola in Nigeria. A catastrophe was predicted when Patrick Sawyer, a Liberian, flew into Lagos, a city of 21 million people, on 20 July straight from his sister’s funeral. He died from the disease, infecting nine doctors and nurses before anybody realised the lethal virus had arrived in their midst.
Yet within three months, Nigeria was declared free of Ebola. There had been just 19 cases and seven deaths.
Nasidi brings the lessons they learned and reinforcements, in the shape of 220 Nigerian healthcare staff who will work in the treatment centres across the region. They will be contracted for six months – far longer than most of the other international volunteers. Nigeria, terrified of allowing Ebola back in, has tough restrictions on people returning from Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. But, says Nasidi, “we are hoping that in six months’ time there will be a vaccine”. Health workers will be the first to get it, he points out.
Most – 95% – of this batch of volunteers were involved in the public health crackdown that eradicated Ebola from Nigeria. It was a scary time, as it is now in Sierra Leone. “I felt danger had come,” said Nasidi. “We were frightened. We knew if Ebola takes root in Nigeria, all Africa will be on fire.” It didn’t happen, thanks to assiduous contact tracing and tough quarantining of suspect cases although, said Nasidi, they spent much more on public education, telling people how to avoid getting infected. They hit the outbreak hard and fast. By now there is consensus that the far less well-resourced countries now being ravaged by the disease did not – and on their own probably could not have done so.