Ebola, Zika, and HIV: all 3 have been (or still are) present in Nigeria. So do Ebola survivors have immunity? Do we have the Zika virus in Nigeria?
These were some of the questions raised during the University of Lagos Pro-Chancellor’s Distinguished Endowed Annual Lecture titled “Responding to Nigeria’s Disease Outbreaks and Epidemics: Ebola, Zika and HIV.”
We joined members of the academic and medical communities to listen to the lecture which was delivered by Prof. Phyllis Kanki, Professor of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, USA.
Prof. Kanki, a veteran in the fight to eradicate infectious diseases, has a tireless track record of working in many countries, including Nigeria.
In Nigeria, she created and directed the AIDS Prevention Initiative in Nigeria (APIN) with a $25 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000 and led the Harvard President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) program in 2004.
Through these two initiatives, more than 6,000 healthworkers were trained, treatment was provided for more than 160,000 AIDS patients, and capacity was built in 22 labs in teaching hospitals across the country. Needless to say, her impact on public health in Nigeria is laudable.
The goal of her lecture was to share some recent research findings on Ebola, Zika, and HIV in Nigeria from her work in collaboration with the Universities of Lagos and Jos.
Do Ebola survivors and those exposed to the virus have immunity?
Professor Kanki began by presenting recent research on Ebola in Nigeria which sought to determine how important it is for the body to have an early and robust immune system response to fight infectious diseases like Ebola. To explore this, she and her team collected blood samples from 2 groups:
They checked for Ebola antibodies (which are the body’s immune response to exposure to the virus) in the blood samples from these 2 groups and their major discovery was:
Though this study used a small sample size, the results demonstrate that those who were in contact with Ebola but never fell sick can better fight Ebola than those who actually contracted the virus, fell sick, and then survived. This explains why some people are considered “asymptomatic carriers” of the virus (people who carry the virus and don’t get sick but can potentially pass the virus on to others).
Why is this important?
Studying the body’s immune response to infectious diseases can help improve diagnosis, treatment, and vaccine development, which in turn can save lives. This study demonstrates that further research like this is needed.
Did you know we (still) have Zika virus in Nigeria?
Prof. Kanki and her Nigerian colleagues also conducted a study to see if Zika virus is still circulating in West Africa.
They took samples from patients reporting fever in Senegal and Jos, Nigeria from 1992 to 2016. They used these samples to test for various viruses including Zika and found a consistent 5-7% infection rate for Zika among the samples.
This indicates that the Zika virus is endemic and continues to circulate in Nigeria and West Africa. In her own words, “it never went away.”
Prof. Kanki mentioned that as a result of this discovery, further research will be conducted on pregnant women in Jos to determine if Zika infection has had any effects on newborns.
What is HIV drug resistance and how does it happen?
Finally, Prof. Kanki presented recent research on HIV drug resistance in children.
Because of Nigeria’s large population, we have a large number of patients on HIV drugs and as more people take these drugs, the virus evolves and becomes resistant (the virus becomes stronger so the drugs no longer work).
In their study of 430 HIV infected infants below 18 months, they found that 48% of the infants had at least 1 drug resistant mutation of HIV. This means that the HIV in almost ½ of the infants may not be able to be treated with the usual drugs because it has mutated and become resistant to those drugs.
Why is this important?
Their research showed there is more HIV drug resistance developing in the northern part of Nigeria. This is something that must be addressed when evaluating HIV treatment programs and health policies throughout the country to ensure resistance does not continue or spread.
Before closing the event, Prof. Kanki emphasized that only through continued research on these infectious diseases can we understand what we are dealing with and come up with solutions to keep people healthy and safe.
She also gave accolades to the fallen heroes who played exceptional roles in the Ebola response, including Dr. Ameyo Stella Adadevoh.