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Nigeria pushes against epidemics

By Nkechi Onyedika-Ugoeze, Joke Falaju and Mathew Ogunne (Abuja)
04 December 2021   |   4:30 am
As COVID-19 continues to ravage humanity across the world, Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire has stressed the need to strengthen Nigeria’s health security architecture to ensure that the nation is prepared at all times to detect and respond effectively to new variants and other epidemics.

Osagie Ehanire

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As COVID-19 continues to ravage humanity across the world, Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire has stressed the need to strengthen Nigeria’s health security architecture to ensure that the nation is prepared at all times to detect and respond effectively to new variants and other epidemics.

Addressing a special session of the National Council on Health (NCH) meeting in Abuja, yesterday, the minister argued that strong and resilient health systems are the lines of defence against pandemics and other health threats.

He said vaccines were the surest and most cost-effective measure the country had so far to contain the coronavirus pandemic, but inequities in global distribution reduced access of African countries to a fair share.

“There are new variants of the COVID-19 virus, some more contagious and virulent; they power new waves of infections. Just in the last few days, we have heard of the new ‘Omicron’ variant, supposedly emerging from southern Africa, which has been labelled a variant of concern, and starting a new round of drastic measures like restrictions of flights and movement likely to hurt economic activities of countries. Whether it’s a COVID-19 variant or a new attack, we must strengthen our health security architecture to ensure that we are prepared at all times to detect, and respond effectively to new variants or any attack.”

He noted that ‘Applying lessons from COVID-19 pandemic to build a resilient health system’ was carefully chosen to reflect the reality of the times and to emphasise the need for a resilient health system, agile and flexible enough to withstand the shocks and challenges of emerging and remerging disease outbreaks threatening the world or parts of the world.

“COVID-19 is just the latest in the course of human existence, of which the manifestation will not always be predictable,” Ehanire said.

The minister informed that as at November 27, 2021, over 6 million persons had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and 3.4 million persons had been fully vaccinated with two doses, stressing, “this is still far from vaccinating 70 per cent of eligible population for herd immunity.”

Ehanire, who told the health commissioners that a mass vaccination exercise aimed at reaching 50 per cent of eligible population by January 2022 was underway, expressed worry that vaccine skepticism is still an issue. He said state governments had a role to play to develop local strategies to counter hesitancy.

“State commissioners must, therefore, continue to work strategically with the federal organs to address it and other challenges. COVID-19 also brought a rude awakening of how totally import-dependent we are when it comes to pharmaceuticals, vaccines and other critical commodities. The realisation of the urgency of domestic manufacturing has never been so clear. Developing and supporting capacity to begin indigenous medical industry is a national security issue, to not only protect our citizens, but also mitigate capital flight derived from importation of all vaccines,” he advised.

The minister who stressed the need to take stock and ensure the succeeding plan addresses emerging needs in a post-pandemic era, said: “While chances of meeting targets may now seem slim in the face of the challenges of the past year, the good news is that our nation can leverage lessons learnt from the fight against COVID-19 pandemic, nationally and globally, to make bold decisions to build a resilient health system.”

According to him, Nigeria has also come a long way in expectation of a law for mandatory health insurance in the country, a critical health sector reform to revolutionise funding and undergoing innovative digital health technology reforms.

“Side by side with this is the network of national Primary Health Care (PHC) centers to take healthcare to the grassroots. Models of new PHC designs have been sent to all state governors and contain staff quarters, assured water supply, solar-powered aggregates and a sound complement of human resource for health. These PHCs are the most important building blocks of our health system and should be prioritised by all states as the platform attains UHC. Opportunities to benefit from COVID-19 pandemic include construction of 50 oxygen plants by the Federal Government and Global Fund, and importation of thousands of oxygen cylinders to make oxygen available to all hospitals, including PHCs, within a short drive.

“We must reflect critically on how to refocus, re-energise and reprogramme the future of health, ensuring lessons learnt from the COVID-19 pandemic response are leveraged to develop statutes, strategies and frameworks that deliver continuously improving quality of health of our people while building back better.”

In his remarks, the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) Nigeria represented by Dr. Eduardo Celades, stated that the special council on health meeting provided the much-needed opportunity for Nigeria to holistically review the impact of COVID-19 pandemic and response on the health sector and propose appropriate strategies for building back better from the pandemic.

He urged the council members to reflect on how best to address the chronic obstacles between Nigeria’s great potential and her aspirations in the health sector, especially the persistent decline in health expenditure as a proportion of GDP from 1.20 per cent in 2004 to only 0.58 per cent in 2018 and inadequate financing of PHC services at service delivery point – the current allocation of N1.5 million per ward under the Basic Health Care Provision Fund is suboptimal, inadequate human resources for health.

Celades listed other challenges as fewer health workers for Nigeria’s population, skewed distribution towards urban centres, skills gaps, poor motivation, weak regulation and poor visibility and the suboptimal PHC infrastructure and equipment, erratic availability of essential commodities and supplies and poor maintenance culture.

On his part, Minister of State for Health, Olorunnimbe Mamora, said the meeting became expedient considering the ongoing and recurring impact of the pandemic, in-addition to the emergence of new and possibly more virulent strains of the virus.

He noted that despite all the challenges posed by COVID-19, several lessons could and have been learned from the pandemic and response efforts made by the government in containing it.

According to Mamora, “consolidating lessons from the pandemic have the potentials of making our health systems more resilient and responsive in a way to develop capacities to prepare for, recover from and absorb shocks, whilst maintaining its core functions and serving the ongoing, acute care and emerging needs of our communities as well as protecting the vulnerable group.”

He quoted the Director General of World Health Organisation (WHO), Dr. Tedros Adhanom as saying that achieving universal health coverage and health security are the same coin with two different sides. “Hence, reflecting on the lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic response and building on the investment made is a sure way of building a resilient health system towards achieving universal health coverage and the SDGs by 2030.”

The meeting came as African countries are stepping up measures to detect and control the spread of the Omicron variant. The weekly new COVID-19 cases on the continent rise by 54 per cent due to an upsurge in southern Africa.

In Africa, the Omicron variant has now been detected in four countries, with Ghana and Nigeria becoming the first West African countries and the latest on the continent to report the new variant. So far, Botswana and South Africa have reported 19 and 172 Omicron variant cases, respectively. Globally, more than 20 countries have detected the variant to date. The two southern Africa countries account for 62 per cent of cases reported globally.

Omicron has a high number of mutations (32) in its spike protein, and preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection, when compared with other variants of concern. Researchers and scientists in South Africa and the region are intensifying their investigations to understand the transmissibility, severity and impact of the Omicron variant in relation to the available vaccines, diagnostics and treatment and whether it is driving the latest surge in COVID-19 infections.

The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) on Wednesday morning confirmed the first case of the Omicron variant in the country. This was contained in a press release issued by the centre and signed by the Director-General, Dr. Ifedayo Adetifa.

Meanwhile, Germany has supported the Nigerian government with 5.2milllion doses of COVID-19 vaccines in the last seven weeks with the most recent 2.2million doses of Johnson and Johnson vaccine arriving the country on the November 29.

German Ambassador to Nigeria, Birgitt Ory, in a statement in Abuja, said: “Germany has donated a total of 5,164,643 doses of COVID-19 vaccines to Nigeria.