An Ebola health worker at Bikoro Hospital, Democratic Republic of the Congo.
By Chinedu Eze and Paul Obi
Abuja — Airport facilities and medical structures that served Nigeria in the aftermath of the 2014 Ebola virus disease outbreak are being reactivated as the country tries to be on the alert for possible reoccurrence following the confirmation of several EVD cases in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. THISDAY learnt at the weekend that the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria had activated its Ebola preventive programme. The programme had been put in place after the late Liberian-American lawyer, Patrick Sawyer, introduced the Ebola virus into Nigeria in July 2014, when he flew into Lagos en route Calabar for a conference.
The World Health Organisation warned on Friday that the Ebola virus could spread exponentially, after about 45 cases and 25 deaths were recorded in DR Congo, with several more cases reported in the busy Congolese port city of Mbandaka. WHO said, “The risk of international spread is particularly high since the city of Mbandaka is in proximity to the Congo River, which has significant regional traffic across porous borders.” It said nine countries bordering Congo, including Congo-Brazzaville and Central African Republic, were at high risk of Ebola spread and had been supported with equipment and personnel.
Nigeria shares borders with Cameroon, which has boundaries with the Central African Republic and Congo Brazzaville, both of which have common borders with DR Congo.
THISDAY gathered that FAAN had gone further to establish clinics at the airsides of the international airports in Lagos, Abuja, Kano, Port Harcourt, and Enugu to ensure that passengers suspected of having the disease are not allowed to come into the arrival halls. FAAN said suspected passengers would be quarantined at the airsides of the airports.
Though WHO said the EVD was not yet an international emergency, airport workers told THISDAY that there was a high risk of Ebola spread to Nigeria because Nigerians were among the most travelled indigenous people in the continent. Many travel for business while some move as tourists across Africa.
Investigation reveals that many Nigerians live in Congo, and an estimated 10, 000 of them trade across West and Central Africa and travel back to Nigeria through mainly Kenya Airways, since the Arik Air flight experiment to the country a few years ago failed. But Nigeria does not have direct flights to Congo.
General Manager, Corporate Affairs, FAAN, Mrs. Henrietta Yakubu, said all the medical equipment that were installed to detect passengers with Ebola were still intact and had been activated for the screening of in-bound passengers. Yakubu said passengers coming from Central and some parts of West Africa were to present their Ebola vaccination cards to confirm that they had been vaccinated against the disease. She said this time, the medical workers who screened travellers did not operate with hand-held equipment because thermal scanners had been installed unobtrusively to monitor passengers as they move to the arrival halls.
Similarly, speaking in Abuja yesterday during the “Health for All Challenge Walk,” WHO Country Representative, Dr Wondi Alemu, said, “WHO is working hand-in-hand with the Federal Ministry of Health and National Centre for Disease Control to take necessary precautions at the ports.”
Wife of Senate President Bukola Saraki, Mrs Toyin Saraki, who is the founder of Wellbeing Foundation Africa and also Special Adviser to WHO, disclosed during the walk that WHO had released 5, 000 doses of vaccine to curtail the spread of Ebola in DR Congo. Saraki said there was need to sensitise Nigerians on hygienic measures to adopt to prevent the spread of the disease.
Yakubu told THISDAY, “We installed thermal scanners and we never removed them. They were mounted in the arrival hall. The thermal scanners have been there, but we have activated them now that there is threat of Ebola. When the Ebola virus started, we were using thermometer, handheld, to detect those who might have the disease. But now we have gone way beyond that. People pass through scanners everyday but they don’t know the thermal scanners are there and as they walk past, it checks their temperature.
“The scanners are monitored, but as a passenger, you will pass through them without knowing that you are being watched. But if your temperature is 38 degrees or above, an alarm will sound like a whistle, and you will be held back. This will alert port health officials who are monitoring. They will excuse the passenger. We have isolation clinics at the airside. This is to ensure that passengers are checked from the aircraft into the terminal building before they come to the arrival hall. From the airside they will be tested and if they are positive they will be put in the isolation clinic that we have created, where further screenings will be conducted on them.”
Yakubu added, “Our medical personnel at the offices have been pulled out. This was mainly due to the health workers strike, as port health medical personnel embarked on solidarity strike. But the port health officials are at the airports now working in collaboration with our medical personnel. Our medical personnel are complementing the staff of port health. We have the medical personnel at all the major airports in Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt, Kano, and Enugu that operate international flights and we want to ensure that nobody with the disease can enter the country without being detected.”
On the 2014 Ebola experience, Yakubu stated, “The processes we put on ground then were globally commended by WHO and IATA. It is the same processes that are on ground now. In fact, I spoke with the airport managers and they assured me we have hand sanitisers. Officials who have contact with the passengers have been given hand gloves and we have the sanitisers at rest rooms and information desks.
“We have also started implementing the policy on vaccination certificate. Those coming from the routes where there is presence of Ebola must show their vaccination certificates. Our port health officials scrutinise the certificates,”
Saraki said in Abuja that disease surveillance officials in Congo spotted the Ebola virus and, “The leadership of WHO reacted promptly within three days with 5, 000 doses of vaccine.”
She said, “Nigeria must not rest on her oars, we need to sensitise the citizenry on personal hygiene within and around them. Hand washing with soap must be taken seriously.”
Saraki added regarding the walk, “The walk is going on all over the WHO country offices. We in the Wellbeing Foundation are happy to be a part of this and we are happy that the maiden edition was a success with about 2, 000 participants and by next year we hope that about 20,000 will participate.”
Following the outbreak of the Ebola disease in Congo, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority had issued a warning to airlines, especially the ones that operate regional and international flights, urging them to screen passengers before boarding them. NCAA gave the directive in a circular. It informed the domestic operators of the outbreak of EVD in Congo on May 8, 2018.
NCAA noted, however, that WHO was yet to declare the outbreak of EVD in DRC a Public Health Event of International Concern, but said the authority, the Federal Ministry of Health, and other relevant agencies had taken concerted steps to ensure the virus did not enter Nigeria.
Spokesman of NCAA, Sam Adurogboye, told THISDAY that of port health officials as well as officials of FAAN and NCAA had conducted mock drills on how to handle any Ebola carrier identified at the airports.
Adurogboye said, “We already have an existing system on checking Ebola at the airports. What we did was to activate it. We have also put in place a system that will alert concerned officials when any airline that operates to the affected destinations arrives Nigeria.
“From the flight plan we would know even before the flight takes off to Nigeria and when it will arrive so we just alert everyone concerned. We are not taking any chances and we are being careful with flights arriving from that part of the continent. We are being very, very careful.”
NCAA stated in the circular to airlines, “Pilots-in-Command of an aircraft are to report to Air Traffic Control any suspected case of communicable disease on board their flight in line with Nig.CARs 188.8.131.52.”
It said in case of any suspected case of communicable disease on board an aircraft, aircrew were to fill the General Declaration (Gen Dec) and Public Health Passenger Locator forms in line with the Nigerian Civil Aviation Regulations (Nig.CARs) 184.108.40.206 and 220.127.116.11.
The agency directed that completed general declaration and public health passenger locator forms were to be submitted to the port health services of the destination aerodrome.
The authority also directed that airlines should ensure they have on board valid and appropriate numbers of first aid kits, universal precaution kits, and emergency medical kits in line with Nig. CARs 18.104.22.168. It directed airlines to refresh the knowledge of their crew members in the handling and communication to ATC of any suspected case of communicable disease on board their flights.
“Airlines are to contact Port Health Services for clearance before importing human remains into the country. Airlines are to report to the authority in writing of any suspected case of communicable disease in flight,” NCAA directed.
NCAA also said it would continue to collaborate with relevant agencies to ensure that the Public Health Emergency Contingency Plan developed for the guidance of aviation stakeholders was adhered to, to prevent importation of any communicable disease into the country through the airports.