‘Nigeria better prepared for another Ebola epidemic’
• Absence of legislation establishing NCDC, poor funding may scuttle plans
• Centre set to inaugurate National Reference Laboratory in Abuja this year
Several recent studies have suggested that Nigeria and most countries in Sub Saharan African countries are ill prepared for another Ebola or major deadly disease outbreak.
There are also fears by stakeholders that due to poor funding, Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) Abuja cannot be able to meet its mandate to protect the health of Nigerians from public health threats.
Chief Executive Officer (CEO), NCDC, Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, said he has developed a blueprint to build the Centre’s capacity to prevent, detect and respond to public health emergencies. “We do this by the prevention, early detection and response to diseases of public health importance. We carry out surveillance of infectious diseases, respond to outbreaks and mitigate the impact of health emergencies,” he told The Guardian.
Ihekweazu, however, said the major challenges facing the Centre are the absence of a Bill establishing the NCDC and poor funding.
What is your blueprint on how to make the country disease free? Ihekweazu, who is also an epidemiologist and consultant public health physician said: “To keep Nigerians disease free, our blueprint is simple – to build our capacity to prevent, detect, respond. To prevent, we are increasing our ramping up all our communication platforms, ensuring that we are speaking directly to Nigerians on what they need to do to keep themselves’ disease free. We are increasing our communication to all professionals and increasing their access to NCDC’s resources.
“To prevent, we are increasing the capacity of our disease detectives all over the country. We support a team of Local Government Disease Surveillance and Notification Officers in every Local Government Area in Nigeria – they are our ears on the ground. In addition we are strengthening our network of specialist laboratories in every zone in Nigeria.
“It is important to note that the strength of our surveillance at the national level lies in the work done by these valuable officers at the Local Government level. By providing them with the capacity required to carry out their duties effectively, we would have made a huge step towards improving our overall surveillance system.
“We have “Situation Room” at NCDC where we analyse reports daily coming in from across the country and decide on a response. We use epidemiological data collected to make informed decisions.
“Our big goal this year is to operationalise the National Reference Laboratory in Gaduwa, Abuja. This will serve as the hub and backbone to all the work that we are doing.
“All the items above are part of the NCDC Strategic Plan that will guide us over the next four to five years.”
What have been the challenges? The epidemiologist said: “I have only been in post for six months, as I started in August 2016. Our major challenge is still the absence of a Bill establishing the NCDC, which leaves us in a tight position especially in terms of recruiting especially skilled staff for the function we have to play for Nigeria. We are however hopeful, that our Bill has now gone to the Federal Executive Council from where it will go to the National Assembly.
“Our other challenge has been in terms of funding. The 2017 proposed budget for the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control has an obvious increase from what we had in 2016 thanks to the work of our Honorable Minister of Health. However, we are still very far from what we need to deliver on a Centre that will fully deliver on its mandate for Nigeria.”
Is Nigeria prepared for another Ebola epidemic? Ihekweazu said: “We are definitely better prepared than we were in 2012, but we are far from where we should be. We are making steady progress towards this and I assure Nigerians, that with their support, we will build an NCDC that will be well equipped to protect them from public health threats.
What is the country’s level of preparedness for emergencies in terms of disease outbreaks? He said: “We are doing our best with the limited resources. At the moment we are supporting the response to multiple outbreaks of Lassa fever around the country. A team from NCDC just returned from the North East of Nigeria. We have a small but strong and dedicated team at the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control. We also have Residents across the country trained by the Nigeria Field Epidemiology and Laboratory Training Program who are ready to be deployed during outbreaks. But there are some areas for us to improve on especially in terms of our laboratory capacity.”
Bill Gates said over the weekend that there is real threat of bioterrorism that could wipe away some part of the human race. Are you concerned? Ihekweazu said the NCDC is very concerned about the threats of bioterrorism. He said it is a concern that Nigeria cannot take for granted as a single occurrence can cause a lot of harm that will last for decades. “Our strategic plan has components for biosafety- an area we are working hard to strengthen. However, we are worried that we are not taking this threat as seriously as we should be in Nigeria,” Ihekweazu said.
Would you say you have achieved anything in NCDC? The epidemiologist said: “We have achieved a lot, in very difficult circumstances. In the past six months we have been able to develop a four-year strategic plan with measurable goals and objectives with which the public can hold us accountable. This is one of our major achievements.
“We have also improved our preparedness and surveillance activities, developed disease guidelines which have been shared on the NCDC website and to all State Epidemiologists, revised and improved our weekly epidemiology report and several other plans that are underway. Whole doing all this, we have sent teams to support the response to many outbreaks across Nigeria, keeping everyone safe.
“Another key achievement for us has been with our communications. Our website and social media platforms are active and used to share health information and receive feedback from the general public. We are determined to empower the Nigerian population with the information they need to keep themselves safe.”
Nigeria is a season when the country usually reports disease epidemics such as measles, meningitis among others. What are you doing about this? Ihekweazu said: “Prior to the beginning of the dry season, we prepositioned medical supplies including drugs and personal protective equipment to all 36 States of the country including the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). These supplies were given as emergency supplies to augment the State’s procurement. In States where there have been outbreaks, we have provided both on-site and off-site support to them in terms of technical assistance and more emergency supplies as required.
“We developed a system that has helped us follow up better with contacts of positive cases for the incubation period. Additionally, we are improving our epidemiological data system to enable us make informed decision that will guide not just response measures, but also policy development.”
The epidemiologist added: “The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control is here to protect the health of Nigerians and we want more Nigerians to be aware about the work we do. We have jingles currently being aired on major television and radio channels across the country, which also provides our contact details. Our Facebook and Twitter accounts are active – @NCDCgov and we are ready to serve Nigerians. It is a new era at NCDC and the Nigerian citizen is at the centre of everything that we do.”