Ebola: Is This Apocalypse? - by Greg Odogwu

Perhaps, the greatest catastrophe in the first ever recorded Ebola virus death in Nigeria is not in the scary incursion of the highly infectious disease, but in the potential psychological damage the unfortunate incident might set off in the religion-soaked minds of some Nigerians. For those who read the hand of the divine in every circumstance, there is a tendency to give an apocalyptic tint to the emerging tragedy and then activate a mental shut down, which would effectively pose a threat to the global fight to contain the deadly epidemic.

In 2011, I got a feedback from a Nigerian reader in reaction to an article I wrote on the fight against climate change. It was a very lengthy text message, which I cannot reproduce at the moment because I eventually lost it; but the message could be summarised in an abridged paraphrase thus: “Sir, all these efforts to end climate change will not yield any positive result whatsoever because it is the will of God, who is determined to even make it worse. Please tell your readers.” It is obvious that this outlook is shared by many religious people. In fact, even terrorism has its roots in religious fundamentalism manifested by the urge to “help hasten God’s judgment on the doomed world.”

Nevertheless, this is neither new to the world, nor peculiar to developing countries. During Black Death, an outbreak of bubonic plague that struck Europe and the Mediterranean area from 1347 through 1351, killing over 50 million people, contemporary theologians believed the epidemic had religious cause: God’s judgment on a sinful humanity. As with earthquakes, floods, and fires, medieval Christians assumed illness was a call to repentance. So, in response, some Christians, known as flagellants, began to ritually beat themselves as penance for their own and for others’ sins. These new groups of flagellants appeared first in Hungary and Germany and then spread throughout the rest of northern Europe. They held processions through towns that lasted for as long as 33 days, each day representing one year in the life of Jesus Christ. They went from town to town and at each stop, after a short sermon by the leader, the penitents would whip or flog themselves before moving on to the next town. Black Death finally disappeared when humans understood bacteria, and the movement of germs.

Today, Ebola virus disease or EVD, formerly known as Ebola haemorrhagic fever, is on the rampage in West Africa. Ebola virus is named for the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it was first identified in 1976. Since then, it has visited Africa off and on, killing thousands in its wake. A deadly viral disease characterised by massive bleeding and destruction of internal tissues, it has killed 672 people across Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, since it was first diagnosed in February this year. It can be highly contagious through contact with infected bodily fluids; and has no known cure at the moment. The only good news is that the fatality rate of the current outbreak is around 60 per cent, whereas the disease is known to have a very high fatality rate of about 90 per cent.

As Nigerians, we should determine to embark on preventive measures against the deadly epidemic. It is nothing new! We can protect ourselves, our families, and our country, from Ebola. As Dr. Emeka Obieze, an Enugu-based medical doctor, pointed out in an interview over the weekend, “This is just a virus. There are uncountable viruses in every part of the world. There was SARS; there is MERS-CoV (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus); they were all contained. What we need is a good medical infrastructure and environmental hygiene culture, to address the current challenge.”

The first thing we could do is to be wary of bush meat. The dictionary describes bush meat as the flesh of wild animals killed for food. In this part of the world, it is a delicacy that has come to be associated with status symbol; and so the more you want to impress your friends or associates, the more you point to the “bush meat joint”. In Nigeria and other countries of Africa, poachers of the legendary African bush meat hunt with abandon. And the reality is that a few think twice before hunting, cooking, roasting and eating or selling the meat of a grass cutter or other wild animals.

But the recent outbreak of Ebola virus has made African countries think twice about this booming trend. Anyaa Vohiri, Executive Director of Liberia’s Environmental Protection Agency, issued a shocking warning to his countrymen, in a recent proclamation: “Stop eating bush meat! Obviously, our borders do not stop viruses from crossing, and the killing and cross border trade of our threatened and protected animals has health and ecological side effects.”

Several incidents of the Ebola virus have been linked to consumption of the popular West African delicacy. It has also been established that Ebola virus is fatal in monkeys, chimpanzees, gorillas, grass cutters and certain types of antelopes and their ilk. Studies also reveal that outbreaks of Ebola in humans tend to be preceded by outbreaks among certain species of local animal populations, especially primates. For instance, the handling of dead animals by hunters has been linked to nearly all human outbreaks in Gabon and the Democratic Republic of Congo, during the previous epidemic waves. So experts recommend that future outbreaks of Ebola in humans could be predicted and stopped in the early stages by tracking animal mortality and then sending health teams into villages when increased animal mortality is detected.

Furthermore, we must all wake up to the reality that the Ebola threat is nothing less than a national emergency. It is unacceptable that Nigerian doctors are on strike at a time like this when all hands – most especially qualified ones – should be on deck to tackle the menace. Derek Gatherer, a virologist at Britain’s University of Lancaster, was quoted as saying that Nigeria is a wealthy country and can do as much as any Western country could do to deal with the outbreak, better than her poorer West African neighbours. But, truth is, without organisation and patriotic motivation, not much could be achieved.

What should our government do? Firstly, as I pointed out in a recent article, instead of the knee-jerk approach the government used in constituting Ad hoc/Emergency Rapid Response Committee months after Lassa Fever hit the country, it should constitute a Standing Rapid Response Committee immediately, for Ebola. Secondly, Nigerians should be exposed to every truth about Ebola virus. The National Orientation Agency and the Ministry of Health should also deploy the social media as a tool to carry out this campaign because of its wide reach and acceptance.

Thirdly, Nigeria has poor disease surveillance infrastructure, and this is disturbing. The government must urgently improve disease surveillance across the length and breadth of the nation. Fourthly, government must start a nationwide training of environmental health officers who would serve as foot soldiers for direct inspection of communities and ports of entry; and assess risky practices and traditions across the country. Finally, it is time for the government to give special attention to our porous borders. When a rare virus does emerge from its seclusion, modern air travel may offer it a free ride anywhere in the world; in fact, this is how Ebola practically flew to Nigeria. It is highly inconvenient in a global age, but those who close their borders are less likely to have an invasion of the deadly virus.

Meanwhile, the Federal Ministry of Health emergency numbers for Ebola virus are 08023310923, 08097979595. E-mail: ebolainfo@health.gov.ng