Ememabasi Bassey is Akwa Ibom State commissioner for health and former chairman, Medical Advisory Council of the University of Uyo Teaching Hospital. In this interview with ANIEFIOK UDONQUAK, he spoke about efforts by the state government to check the outbreak of the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD), achievements in the health sector, among other issues. Excerpts:
What steps has the state government taken to prevent the outbreak of the Ebola Virus Disease?
The purpose of our enlightenment programme is not to cause panic or hysteria among the population. I make bold to say that as of today, we do not have any known confirmed case of Ebola Virus Disease in the state. I have also been saying this on a day to day basis because I cannot speak for tomorrow. I also say to a large extent that barring any unforeseen circumstances, or fresh cases where you would have people coming into the country, that the Ebola outbreak in Nigeria has largely been controlled or contained. Right now, we are talking about one or two people still receiving treatment in Lagos. Quite a number of people are still under surveillance and would have to be under surveillance for 21 days to ensure that they do not develop symptoms. So, having said that, what is the state government doing? We have done a lot. We do not want to create panic among the population but am sure you have noticed that on your radio, you have so many jingles, public information going on. We have many sensitisation workshops and seminars. I have met with different groups of people. We have had seminars with the private practitioners, we have had with medical doctors, and we have had even with the morticians. We have had with road transport workers and we have had a training of trainers’ workshop. We have met with Primary Health Centre directors and the local government disease surveillance officers. We have had workshops and seminars even with Christian Association of Nigeria; we propose to have a meeting with all the local government chairmen and even with the traditional rulers.
In all these meetings, what has been the key message?
We are trying to take this message home. We have produced so many information, education and communication materials which we have distributed all over the state, hoping that some of these things will be replicated by the necessary authorities. I am even holding a book here, ‘Ebola Virus Disease and Control,’ published by the Ministry of Health, and not for sale. We are trying to document the whole thing about Ebola. Let people have the proper information. We have also been out there preaching. We have also realised that our health workers are the ones who are most at risk. We have procured a lot of consumables, in terms of gloves, face masks and all that which we have distributed. The truth is that the whole Ebola outbreak is a wakeup call on the need for us to start doing things properly because it is expected that when you go to a hospital, the health care provider should take universal precaution on a patient to patient basis. But these are the things we took for granted. We never did. You see people examining people with their bare hands not even washing them or using hand sanitizers. We are asking people, even the health care professionals that now is the time to do things differently. Do things according to the international best practices because you can never know who would have Ebola and who would not have it. It is also an attempt to build capacity in one or two places, preparing for the eventual possibility. As much as we do not want it, we do not want to be caught napping in case if we have an Ebola outbreak in the state where we need to manage or build up capacity, looking for volunteers and designated one or two places as possible treatment centres, that is in a nutshell what we have done to prevent Ebola.
What about screening?
Of course, you are aware of the screening. I would say that probably after the Lagos International Airport and Abuja, Akwa Ibom airport was the next airport to start screening. We have actually been publicly commended for that. We have been doing this screening for about five weeks now at the airport and probably at other strategic locations. Now, why we cannot screen all over the state, first and foremost, we have the issue of logistics, and the issue of what to do next. It is not only screening but there is also protocol to follow. So, it is better to concentrate your resources and do some strategic screening than trying to screen everywhere that at the end of the day you are overwhelmed you do not even know how to move forward.
At the individual level, what should be done to stay free from the virus?
The symptoms of Ebola at least in the early stages are non-specific. You cannot really say oh this is Ebola. It comes with the symptoms of (I would say) fever; you have the normal symptoms initially, you have fever, you have headache, you have body pains, you have weakness, just like any other viral infection or malaria fever. In the earlier stages, you could start having vomiting, diarrhea and probably bleeding (either internal or external bleeding). We have always had people bleeding, now these people are being labelled Ebola, this is not true, because it is a case of definition again. When you have these symptoms plus exposure or history of contact, with somebody who has been diagnosed or has died of Ebola, then that becomes highly probable. Not for somebody may be in Uyo here and maybe he is having bleeding. We have always had cases of bleeding or people having diarrhea and you now say this is Ebola, everybody runs away. The very first thing to do about prevention is actually knowledge, being aware. But what one needs to understand by these symptoms is that somebody gets infected with Ebola Virus Disease when he comes in contact with the body fluids or secretions of somebody who is acutely ill with Ebola Virus Disease. What this means is that if I am incubating this virus, I probably have contracted it but am not sick with it, it is impossible for me to pass it on to somebody else. And we are talking here about close contact. If you look at the paradigm, almost everybody who has been infected with Ebola Virus Disease has been in close contact of another case.
What achievements have been recorded in the health sector since you assumed office?
It is a privilege to be where we are as commissioners and members of the uncommon transformation team of the state government. Over the last 15 months since I had the privilege to serve as honourable commissioner in this government, the ministry of health has recorded a lot of achievements. First, we also boast with pride about the free health policy of the government to children under five and pregnant women. When we came on board, we only had sixty two outlets. As of today, am proud to say that we are moving drugs and other consumables to 190 of our public health facilities that is a boost in terms of infrastructure. Under my watch, we have had two of our hospitals commissioned, the General Hospitals at Okoroette in Eastern Obolo and the cottage hospital at Ika, those have been commissioned. I would also said that we have met our targets in terms of immunisation for our children, and then very recently after a number of years, we are now addressing the huge manpower gap in the health sector whereby a large number of health workers have been recruited- doctors, nurses, laboratory scientists, radiographers and physiotherapists. All cadres are being recruited into the workforce. In terms of quality of service, you would attest that things are gradually getting better. The 20th anniversary hospital is gradually approaching completion. So, in a nutshell, we have achieved quite a lot. The ministry of health has also done its quota in terms of the transformation of the state.