Sound familiar? In recent years and months, these words have made news headlines all over the world.
It’s clear that infectious diseases are not going away. In addition to new deadly pathogens emerging, older viruses are making a comeback and claiming lives. Malaria returned to Greece after 50 years; schistosomiasis appeared off the coast of France; an outbreak of chikungunya sickened Italians and Caribbean countries; scarlet fever returned to England; whooping cough and measles continue to kill children all over the world; and the Zika virus threatens to spread across much of Central America, the Caribbean, and North America.
Throughout history, infectious diseases have jumped from animals to people (influenza from pigs and birds, HIV originated in monkeys, Ebola originated in bats) and these days, infectious diseases easily travel across oceans and other geographic barriers.
Let’s take Ebola as a prime example. Historically, the virus affected mostly Central and East African countries only. But the latest outbreak began in the West African country of Guinea and from there spread to Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria, Mali, USA, Senegal, Spain, Italy, and Scotland. That’s 9 countries on 3 continents with imported Ebola cases because we live in such a connected and globalized world.
Infectious disease outbreaks and epidemics are not a thing of the past and in today’s world, we truly cannot afford to wait for the next public health crisis to happen before we take action. An outbreak turning into a global pandemic is more likely than ever before with the constant movement of people, food, animals, and disease-carrying vectors (e.g. mosquitos) across borders. Infectious diseases know no borders and already in the first three months of 2016, Nigeria is facing the threat of an outbreak of Zika and battling with ongoing measles and Lassa fever outbreaks.
So what can we do? Preparedness for outbreaks is key. We cannot stress that enough. Without well-trained health workers and the necessary structures in place to anticipate and respond to the next public health crisis, Nigeria will remain at risk. And as Africa’s largest country with more than 170 million people, it’s a huge risk for us and for the whole world.
And yet, most of the preparedness interventions and prevention efforts that emerged during Nigeria’s response to Ebola in 2014 are gone. Do we still wash our hands regularly? Do we still conduct temperature checks? Are people maintaining good personal hygiene habits? Is hand sanitizer still available/required in most public places? For the most part, the answer to all these questions is no.
We must reinstate and constantly reinforce these and other approaches to maintain public awareness of the threat of infectious disease outbreaks. There’s no reason to stop now. If anything, recent events across the world have shown us that now, more than ever, we must remain vigilant. After all, let’s not forget that it was only one man who brought Ebola into Nigeria. That’s all it takes to begin an outbreak.
Yes, Nigeria stopped what could have been a massive Ebola outbreak. From Dr. Adadevoh’s correct diagnosis of the first Ebola patient to the government and international community’s effective response, we did very well and prevented what could have easily become a major public health disaster that ravaged the country.
But we’ve congratulated ourselves enough. Another outbreak will happen so now is not the time to relax or rest on our laurels. We need ACTION. Just because we contained Ebola doesn’t mean we will be so lucky next time. We need to see deliberate and strategic changes towards outbreak preparedness across our health sector and DRASA is committed to be part of this effort. We’re determined to address the gaps and issues in our healthcare system by ensuring that Nigeria is advancing and improving medical education and training, and putting in place the necessary safeguards to be well-prepared for future outbreaks. We hope you’ll support and join us.