Niniola Williams, Executive Director, DRASA Health Trust
By Josephine Agbonkhese
As at 2014 while Niniola Williams was working to help Liberia and Guinea combat the deadly Ebola virus as a member of staff of Management Sciences for Health—a public health organisation with presence inover 50 countries, her aunt, Dr Ameyo Stella Adadevoh, fell victim to the virus back home in Nigeria in a heroic bid to protect the Nigerian populace from what would have become a major Ebola outbreak. Adadevoh had, in spite of threat from Liberian officials, obstinately quarantined Patrick Sawyer who had flown into the country with the virus and taken ill; which landed him in the health facility where she worked. She eventually died on August 19, 2014, 15 days after contracting the virus as a result of her contact with Sawyer.
Last month marked the 5th anniversary of that incident, as well as Adadevoh’s demise. In this interview,Williams, now Executive Director of DRASA (Dr Ameyo Stella Adadevoh) HealthTrust, tells of how her late aunt is being immortalised through the activities of DRASA, which is a public health organisation initiated by the Adadevoh familyand championed by her humble self. Williams holds a bachelor’s in Cognitive Science/Neuroscience from the University of Pennsylvania, USA, and a certificate in Social Sector Management from Pan-Atlantic University, Lagos.
Dr Adadevoh left behind a son; why must you be the one to champion this cause and not any other member of the family or her son?
As a family, we knew we had to do something to immortalise her. Many said we should build a hospital and name it after her. That’s fine but we didn’t feel we’ll make enough impact with that. We wanted something that would touch people’s lives individually. Hence, we decided something like an initiative that would live beyond a building, would be better. I was already working in the public health sector. Precisely, I was already working for a company that was responding to Ebola in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea; that was Management Sciences for Health, a public health organisation that works in over 50 countries on issues of HIV, malaria, tuberculosis and reproductive health. I was working on our response when Ebola came to Nigeria.
Sincemy work was already in the same space, by the time we decided what we wanted todo as a family, it was easier for me to take it up. I had also worked on water,sanitation and hygiene projects in Kenya for another organization.
It’s now five years since Dr Adedevoh’s demise; how are you keeping alive her virtues through DRASA?
It’s been depressing living without her in the family but with DRASA, we’ve been able to push forward and turn the loss into something positive for the country. Our main focus is looking at ways through which we can prevent infectious diseases across the country, including improving the state of hygiene in communities, and training health workers and people in hospitals to be able todo what she and her team did; identify a case and contain it while also protecting themselves. We also train youths because we know that we have a very youthful population in Nigeria. We train them on how to become health and hygiene ambassadors who would take forward the importance of simple things thatcan be done to prevent diseases in the community.
In what places have you carried out this training for young people?
For a start, we’ve been based in Lagos State. We’ve carried out a lot of programmes and we’re working with the World Health Organisation to expand across the country.
We’ve been doing this since 2017 and so far, we have trained 460 youth ambassadors by setting up health and hygiene clubs in ten secondary schools the same way you have Girls’ Guilds, Literary & Debate Clubs, etc. The club is called DRASA Club. Members meet weekly and are engaged in different activities and lessons.They are required as ambassadors to take that forward to the rest of the school,as well as their communities; their home, siblings, circle of influence, etc. DRASA Club is run in partnership with the World Health Organisation also.
…and how many medical practitioners haveyou trained?
We’ve trained 236 of them from various states across the country. It is a certification training and its full version takes two weeks for each batch. We go in-depth to participants to understand what to do when somebody walks into their hospitals with symptoms that could easily be mistaken for malaria or Lassa fever, meningitis, etc. Unfortunately, this is not something they teach these professionals when they go to medical school. So, we are trying to fill that gap by training them so that they are prepared to do the needful when the need arises. Currently in Lagos State,there’s monkey pox and we don’t know where it’s coming from; we’ve been havingLassa fever year round too. So, these demand that our health system isprepared. We do this in partnership with the state ministries of health, the University of Lagos College of Medicine and the Nigerian Centre for Diseases Control, NCDC.
Talking about the gap in our educational system; are you insinuating that Ebola is not taught in Nigerian institutions?
It’s something you only get to read about one or two lines on. Which was why in2014, Nigeria was at big risk if that man did not end up in the care of my aunty and her team. We would have had a different situation if she didn’t know what to do; she had to go educate herself. The difference was that she had avery high level of suspicion from knowing that these sicknesses don’t come with very obvious symptoms. In Nigeria, we think that everything that causes feveris malaria and typhoid. We forget that there are so many other dangerous things that can cause fever, and by the time we realise, it is often too late; that was what happened in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea where they had thousandsof deaths from Ebola. They kept misdiagnosing it as malaria and typhoid. Theyare very similar anyway.
But how did she ‘educate her herself’like you said?
She went online, researched and printed all sorts of materials for herself and her staff. You know, we had no information concerning it because it was new in Nigeria. It was our very first case and she needed to make sure it was managedproperly.
Have you noticed that regular hand washing and temperature check aren’t common practices anymorelike we saw in 2014?
Exactly,and that’s what we are advocating. For example, if you go to Accra in Ghana,they’ve not stopped. They are still using hand sanitizers and temperature checks at the airport. But here, we have become relaxed about them. I’m even talking about airports; what about the land borders where people just walk in without any form of checks. They bring animals in and you know that Ebola,Lassa, and all, come from animals. The threat is still there even though we cannot see it. We all saw what Ebola did to our neighbouring countries in West Africa.
We feel everything is fine but have forgotten that in DR Congo which is just a one hour flight from here, we have outbreaks that have been going on for over one year and which have killed thousands of people. It just takes one infected person to climb on the plane and come and that’s the end. That’s why we are doing what we are doing; not just training the health sector to get people ready to respond but also training communities to be aware that even though Ebola left, it can easily come back. Therefore, we must continue washing our hands, cooking our foods very well as these infections hide in food and water. The concern is not just Ebola but other common infections that happen every day; you stillhear people dying of cholera in the 21st century, and that’s a disgrace.
How did you feel about the recent ECOWAS Prize of Excellence posthumously conferred on Dr Adadevoh?
As a family, we are very grateful for the ECOWAS award. It is amazing that the entire West African region recognised her sacrifice and that of her colleagues. It is comforting for us to know that people all over the region are still celebrating her. It drives us to know what we are doing through DRASA HealthTrust to improve the public health situation in Nigeria (and subsequently the region because if Nigeria is prepared to contain an outbreak, then our neighbors are also safe) is needed and appreciated.
Advice to everyone…
Let’s not forget 2014. We avoided a massive catastrophe and people lost their lives in the process. Let’s even look at neighbouring countries; Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. What happened to them could have happened to us. They are still recovering. They are still not the same. Their economies are still bad. Investment from foreign companies is not there as it used too. Their people have continued to suffer as they recover from the outbreak. So, let’s not forget all what we need to keep doing. This is important because we don’t know when and where it is going to come next and who is going to be the one on the frontline. It is that healthcare worker who receives that patient that will determine the cause of history for the rest of the country. Either they do the right thing that they are equipped and trained to, or they miss it and then it spreads; and thenwe all are in trouble. Our population is just too big for us to take that risk.Hence, our goal in DRASA is to fill those gaps and work with government to ensure that we are prepared for any eventualities.
I will also advise every organisation to put in place facilities with which people can always wash their hands because maintaining the practice of regular hand washing will be easier if facilities are accessible.