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Ebola virus, the absurd and urban legends

By Rotimi Fasan
THE outbreak of Ebola virus in parts of West Africa, including Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, has rightly sent panic around the world. From Liberia it has found its way to Nigeria and is slowly spreading among health workers and others who had had direct and indirect contact with infected persons.

The fear now is that it might continue its slow but steady spread if nothing or enough is done to stem it. Such a devastating killer should not be allowed to continue unchecked, especially since the mode of transmission could be as insidious as shaking hands with an infected person.

This is not the first time this deadly disease that has no known vaccine to contain it would announce its presence. Indeed, it was first reported nearly four decades ago, precisely in 1976. Its unfortunate hosts then were Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. There have been intermittent outbreaks since then but nothing as devastating as its recent emergence in parts of West Africa.

Found mostly among monkeys, chimpanzees, gorillas, antelopes and other game animals we in these parts relish as bush meat, Ebola virus is the very death that comes from what is loved and desired. It is truly the proverbial dry meat that fills the mouth. Even though it has killed less than three thousand people in about 40 years, its catastrophic potential cannot and should not be underestimated.

It is a real threat that should not be treated with the usual levity with which we treat so many other things. Clear cases of human negligence we call acts of nature in Nigeria- that is not the way to respond to the Ebola threat. Which is why how some Nigerians have been responding to this virus should worry us all. This is more so now that doctors have been on strike for many weeks. And the fact that some health workers, local and international, are among the unfortunate victims of Ebola is another reason we should be more diligent and responsible in our response to the disease.

Not many people, including health workers, would be quick to rise to cases of Ebola virus. We are often superstitious and enigmatic in explaining simple cases of personal or collective negligence. Health workers being people with families could be easily persuaded by members of their own family to steer clear of treating a disease that appears to go after those who try to control it. That is even where they are wiling and determined to live up to their professional calling. It’s a bad case now that our doctors and other categories of health professionals feel they have not been given enough respect or reward for their work. Which is one reason the doctors have been on strike and are now being begged to return to work.

But the greater task in controlling this viral outbreak is for our government, from Abuja down to the states and local councils, to take very active and effective measures that could limit the mobility of this highly mobile threat. The response should not just be limited to medical activities. It should in fact start with mobilising Nigerians to an awareness of the danger posed by the virus.

A lot needs to be done as Nigerians seem to relish the prospect of deliberately misinforming one another. The unproven claim that the local bitter kola cures Ebola virus is one such stupidity that should not be allowed to gain a foothold. If people must justify their consumption of this type of local snack they should not link that to serious health issues that demand immediate and serious treatment. It’s the height of absurdity for people to go into town with claims of unfounded cure that is attributed to a former chair of our electoral commission, Maurice Iwu, a professor of Pharmacognosy.

In his time as INEC boss, Iwu was not necessarily a favourite of Nigerians, especially politicians. We did not hear much about his scientific or research exploits. Which is not to discount them if they exist. But to throw him into this present discussion of Ebola virus in a manner that suggests a belated attempt at beatification is very irresponsible indeed. Prof. Iwu has not himself said anything about this so-called research that is attributed to him.

Even the health authorities have debunked claims of cure for Ebola. It is therefore a disservice to many of our illiterate compatriots to peddle old wives’ tales that would as likely as not create a dangerous sense of safety where none exists.

That there is observable increase in demand for bitter kola, as the media have reported, is to say that many of us are treating the unproven cure claim with the seriousness it does not deserve. It is the very reason why official authorities at all levels must rise to the occasion and counter these pernicious claims of cure with more targeted information regarding the spread of this virus and how to avoid it.

As I write this, the news is just breaking that the nurse who attended to Patrick Sawyer, the Liberian-American, through whom the disease entered Nigeria has passed on. This is aside report that five more Nigerians have been reported to be infected with the virus. If this news is confirmed, then we just cannot be too careful and up and doing about stemming the tide of Ebola.

Rather than spending precious time wondering or bickering over President Goodluck Jonathan being tested for the presence of Ebola virus when he arrived the US for the African leaders summit with President Obama- rather than such unprofitable speculation, we should be concerned about halting Ebola in its stride among the greater Nigeria population.

To give Ebola room in Lagos with its huge human population that is more than that of many countries in Africa is to court annihilation. To allow it take root in any part of Nigeria at all is to court disaster on a scale unknown in our despicable history of slow response to or lack of concern for issues of public safety.

It is the prerogrative of America to test nationals of any country where Ebola virus has been reported. That our borders are so porous that anything passes through them is no reason to expect others to follow in our step.

We can only hope and pray that in their bid to contain the spread of the disease that they do not conjure phantom reasons to deny Nigerians their due or treat them unfairly when applying to visit certain countries, as South Africa did in a manner that elicited retaliatory measures from Nigeria not too long ago. To avoid this and to end Ebola’s ghastly career we must go beyond the absurdities of the last few days.



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