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Why COVID-19 could hit Nigeria hard

By Stanley Akpunonu
27 March 2020   |   4:17 am
Indications have emerged on how the COVID-19 will claim more lives in Nigeria if proper and necessary measures are not put in place to contain the spread.


Indications have emerged on how the COVID-19 will claim more lives in Nigeria if proper and necessary measures are not put in place to contain the spread.

Recall the country recorded the index case, an Italian citizen who returned from to Lagos, Nigeria on February 25.

Till date, the country has recorded 35 cases across five states; one death and the majority of the cases had a travel history from the United States of America and the United Kingdom.

However, the virus, which originated from Wuhan, China, has infected more than 372,757 with over 16,231 deaths.

In Nigeria, experts have projected that the outbreak might be severe in the country due to the poor health system, porous borders, and the government’s lackadaisical attitude as regards manning the borders efficiently.

Also, underlying ailments like diabetes, tuberculosis, Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), cancers, hypertension, which are in exponential increase across the country can also make the country vulnerable to COVID-19.

According to a study published in the New England Journal, the novel virus can survive in the air for several hours in fine particles known as aerosols.

The study states that the virus, which causes the respiratory infection COVID-19, can be detected up to three hours after aerosolisation and can infect cells throughout that time period.

Though, the study is still in its preliminary stage, because it has not undergone extensive peer-review, the World Health Organisation (WHO) is considering airborne precautions for medical staff.

Meanwhile, the Executive Director, International Research Centre of Excellence (IRCE) of the Institute of Human Virology of Nigeria (IHVN), Prof. Alash’le Abimiku, told The Guardian in an exclusive interview that it is obvious the virus has really moved from the origin and spread across the countries of the world.

She noted that viruses tend to do well in temperate weather, which benefit their survival and spread, hence this might explain some of the differences in Africa.

Abimiku, a Professor in the Department of Medicine at the University Of Maryland School Of Medicine, also Co-founder, IHVN, said: “I think the warmer temperature really limits its ability to do well but that does not mean it will not spread. The only difference is that, if I cough now and it drops in very warm temperature, it is not going to survive long. I think the warm weather has really helped us a little, kind of limiting it availability to live for long time.

“Also, physiologically as we grow our immune system also becomes weaker and more vulnerable to infection. Anytime a virus infects the body, it senses something foreign and starts to fight it. Your body starts providing antiviral substance to cure the virus and the virus is trying to multiply and overcome your immunity so this battle keeps ongoing. In younger people immunity is more potent so the virus is cleared after some time but older people are more vulnerable.”

The expert disclosed her displeasure in the government with the lack of preparedness and weak health system to manage the pandemic despite having a lot of time.

She continued: “I am praying Nigerians will take this serious and do the little we can to protect ourselves. Nigerians should not look too much at the government because we have a government that is a lot of cripple. Let us adhere to what we are told. We should not expect the government to do lot more they can do. We already know we have a broken system.”

Prior to the belief that the virus does not affect Africans, the scientist said the spread has nothing to do with the African gene but they are going to look at it and see if there is any protective mechanism.

“At the moment, we can see it is spreading in Africa, we can see the numbers. We are hoping that we have all the appropriate measures in place to limit the spread.

“The countries that were complacent about the pandemic are now paying the price. So, I am hoping we will really put structures in place to limit its spread in the nation,” the researcher said.

Abimiku’s research interests are in the epidemiological characterisation of viruses and HIV disease models from selected target study populations in Nigeria to understand the pathogenesis of HIV and co-infections; and protective mechanisms through HIV vaccine research.

On being viral secured, Abimiku said: “The whole world is not secured, that is why once in a while we have what is called pandemic because it just sweeps the whole continent. We cannot be secured as a nation; we just need to get into the game of having the manufacturers that can jump in and begin to manufacture drugs, do testing, vaccines and more education especially for rural people to let them understand.

“Think of any infection that eating well or washing hands will not help. There is none. If we push those social habits a lot disease would be prevented. You know we are very warm culture; we love to be close to each other. Let us give each other space maybe this is what we need to think about without feeling we are going against society because we are living in a different trend now.”

She stated that the WHO has laid out different rules to contain the spread of the virus.

“WHO brings the entire expert together, it is always good to listen to them. Obviously the social distancing is a thing seen to have worked. When you limit the ability of droplet to reach you then you are actually doing something, self-quarantine and all of that are really good thing we should do. Wearing of masks, I think should be limited to health care workers who have no option than to be at close proximity to patients. For me as an individual, I will not wear mask, I’ll prefer to wash my hands and keep up this distance.”

Abimiku harped on the need to educate ourselves without causing pandemonium urging the vulnerable population to protect themselves.

She highlighted that at IHVN, one of the things they want to be careful about is to be sensitive to the local health challenges of wherever they are situated stating that IHVN has always worked with the government agency and have supported the government of Nigeria and its citizens.

“When we established the IRCE, one of the things we have done very well is to support the country in HIV and TB infection. We are beginning to see that there are other cancers that are happening. It is another area the institute has research ongoing. The other areas we work on are the molecular areas, viruses, bacteria, parasites and fungi.

“The centre is set up to support our programme. We will be doing a lot of research in identifying some gaps, addressing it through research and sharing the information. We will improve on all the areas that we are supporting the citizens of Nigeria.”

“At IHVN, we are developing a pool of scientists that will continue to work with government in the area of quality. We will continue to discover and modify things. Also, we want pharmaceutical industries in Nigeria to fund research.”

The executive director said the institute has developed over 200 laboratories in the country with trained staff and all of that is the funding from the US government.

She said IHVN’s hallmark was the laboratory institute because that is the capacity they are building in the country for the last 20 years.

The expert said, “We do not have as many laboratories we would want to, however, the institute has supported laboratories in Nigeria to get certification urged the country to step its game in quality assurance as regards to laboratory science.

“COVID-19 is quite a challenge and we have some WHO centres that have been licensed to handle and do the testing. In Nigeria right now we have the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), which the IHVN supports really widely. We have a number of our technical staff that is stationed there to support some of the efforts towards testing for corona. If the virus spreads the labs we have in this country will not be able to handle it and IHVN is certainly in a position to help.

“We need to see proactive preparedness by the government where they bring in institutions together and begin to talk to them on how to support in case the virus spreads. I believe the continent will be blamed harshly because we had four months to prepare for this.”