Liberian president apologises to Nigeria, envoy alleges harassment of citizens • FG donates $3.5m to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone • Obama says it’s too early to give experimental drug to Africa
Health minister terms disease ‘viral terrorism’, says handshakes not necessary
It has been revealed that the Liberian, Mr. Patrick Sawyer, who travelled to Lagos from Monrovia and became Nigeria’s index case for the Ebola virus was actually under surveillance by the Liberian health authorities, even though he still managed to board a flight to travel.
The Minister of State II for Foreign Affairs, Dr. Nurudeen Mohammed, said this while relaying a conversation between Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Nigeria’s Ambassador to Liberia, Ambassador Chigozie Oby-Nadozie.
According to Mohammed, President Sirleaf, in a telephone conversation with Oby-Nadozie, had expressed regrets at the circumstances under which the virus was brought to Nigeria by Sawyer who was under surveillance.
There have been reports that Sawyer’s sister had died of the virus.
Mohammed, at a briefing for members of the diplomatic corps in Abuja yesterday on the Ebola virus, however, noted that this was not a time for trading blame, but for collaboration to combat and stop the spread of the deadly epidemic, which has now killed over 900 persons, according to figures from the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Vice-President, Dr. Toga Mcintosh, confirmed that Sawyer escaped from quarantine in Liberia to fly to Nigeria.
Speaking with journalists at the end of the briefing, Mcintosh said: “Because he had contact with somebody who died from Ebola, he was quarantined in his own country but he evaded the quarantine and came to Nigeria.”
Outbound Passengers for Screening
Also speaking at the briefing, the Minister of Health, Prof. Onyebuchi Chukwu, said health authorities would commence the screening of all outbound passengers from Nigeria’s shores.
Passengers who show symptoms would be prevented from travelling and where they are non-Nigerians, they would only be allowed out if their countries have the capacity for a properly supervised evacuation and treatment as was demonstrated by the US recently, he explained.
According to Chukwu, “In Nigeria, we have not closed our borders. The Minister of Health will be the person to advise the president to close the borders. If there is any superior argument, then we can shift.
“For now, we are taking the advice of the US government that it may be useful if we begin screening outbound passengers, and we have adopted it. We are screening now. We are going to get more personnel.”
He also called on the diplomats present to ask their countries to assist Nigeria as it fights to curtail the spread of the virus, saying: “Wherever your countries can assist us, if useful, particularly your airlines flying to Nigeria. We want to screen citizens and non-citizens, if they have it please let them stay in Nigeria; we will treat you here. Even if you are our ambassadors, we want to treat you here.
“We have begun to screen all outbound passengers. We don’t want them to go to other countries and cause trouble there. Except your country has what it takes, we want to keep you and treat you here, so that we contain this disease. We must insist that before passengers leave, they must be screened.”
He added that the spread of the virus was not yet critical in Nigeria, saying that the spread was “exponential”.
Chukwu also explained that more medical personnel were being recruited and would be entitled to life insurance, stressing that all those recruited whether from the federal civil service, state or private health institutions would be entitled to life insurance.
This, he added, is to ensure that the families of the caregivers are adequately taken care of in the event of death.
Handshaking Should be Limited
As a precautionary measure, the minister said people should shake hands only when necessary.
“We are not saying people should not shake hands, but we are saying that if it is not necessary, don’t do so,” Chukwu said.
On pilgrimage, the minister urged hajj teams to have a medical team. He said the government was already working with the Saudi authorities to ensure that all pilgrims are screened and in turn, all Saudi nationals visiting Nigeria would be screened without any obstruction to religious obligations.
He cautioned that the new trend where some persons choose to wear gloves was “counterproductive” as they would accumulate the virus and may even take it to their homes.
“The practice of wearing gloves by members of the public would only be effective if all 170 million Nigerians do so,” he said.
He however harped on the necessity of all health workers and airport officials to put on masks and disposable gloves before touching patients and passengers.
The minister gave a breakdown of the spread of the virus, stating that the number of confirmed cases still stood at seven, describing the disease as “viral terrorism”.
ECOWAS Staff under Surveillance
During the briefing, the ECOWAS commission also disclosed that some of its staff, who had direct contact with Sawyer on his arrival in Nigeria were also under surveillance.
Mcintosh, who spoke on behalf of the commission, said the persons included the ECOWAS driver and protocol officers who met him at the airport and took him to the hospital after he collapsed.
He also disclosed that the commission’s office in Lagos had been temporarily shut down to allow for extensive fumigation by the Lagos State Government.
This, Mcintosh explained, became necessary, as the vehicle in which Sawyer was conveyed to the hospital was parked in the office premises for several days, while the members of staff who had contact with him continued to interact with others for several days before it was discovered he was suffering from the Ebola virus.
Mcintosh, however, clarified that Sawyer did not at any time go to Calabar, venue of the ECOWAS retreat which brought him to Nigeria.
“It is a destructive element to development. It is no longer a Liberian or Nigerian problem, but all abilities should be channelled in the same direction. The time has come for us to do all we can to stabilise the situation,” he said.
FG Donates $3.5m to Guinea, Liberia, S’Leone
He also expressed appreciation to the Nigerian government for its donation of $3.5 million to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone to help tackle the virus.
The commission has also suspended all meetings that would bring in representatives for its member states, except where such meetings are extremely crucial.
The Liberian Ambassador to Nigeria, Dr. Al-Hassan Conteh, however, alleged that Liberian citizens living in Nigeria were being subjected to harassment by stereotyping and the seeming collective guilt since news of the citizenship of the index case broke.
He revealed that most of the reported cases of harassment were in Lagos State.
“It is important that as we frame our responses in the public campaign that association is causation, there should be caution. Even if the index case was Liberian, it does not mean all Liberians have Ebola,” Conteh said.
The envoy also voiced his concerns at a cartoon recently published by a local newspaper portraying people running away from an airplane because one of the passengers had said that another passenger looked like a Liberian.
Video Shows Sawyer was Very Ill
It has also emerged that Sawyer looked “terribly ill” and might have known he was infected with the virus before travelling to Nigeria, the Liberian media has reported.
According to a review of Close Circuit Television (CCTV) images at the James Spriggs Payne’s Airport, Monrovia, by Liberian newspaper, The New Dawn, Sawyer, also a naturalised American, looked terribly ill and deliberately avoided contact with people just before boarding the Asky Airline flight that brought him to Lagos.
Describing his behaviour as “strange”, the The New Dawn said Sawyer bore a “sad countenance” like he was troubled and sat alone avoiding bodily contact with other passengers who came close to him at the boarding gate of the James Sprigg Payne’s Airport as he awaited his flight to Lagos.
“His strange behaviour and frequent movement up and down as he eagerly awaited his Asky flight had prompted the security camera operator to focus on him. In the video, Patrick could be seen avoiding physical contact with airport employees and other passengers during the check-in process,” the newspaper wrote.
Airport video footage, according to the report, also showed Sawyer lying flat on his stomach on the floor in the corridor of the airport and seemed to be in “excruciating pain.”
The footage showed Sawyer preventing people from touching him. According to the The New Dawn reporter who reviewed the video, he even snubbed an immigration officer who initiated a friendly gesture of a handshake moments before he boarded the airplane.
FrontPage Africa, another Liberian newspaper, also reported that Sawyer, who was believed to have been infected by his sister, told its reporter shortly before he travelled to Nigeria that he had gone in search of his sister’s husband who ran away after she tested positive to Ebola.
The paper said Sawyer vomited a few times among his friends in Liberia just before heading to the airport and also on the plane. FrontPage Africa’s publisher, Rodney Sieh, later told online news medium, Premium Times by telephone that his paper’s extensive reporting on the matter showed clearly that Sawyer knew he had contracted the Ebola virus before travelling to Nigeria.
“He definitely knew he was sick and it was curious that he still decided to travel,” Sieh said. “His sister had died from the virus and he most likely had contact with her.”
According to FrontPage Africa, after Sawyer became ill on the airplane, he denied to First Consultants’ personnel that he had contact with anyone infected with Ebola despite repeated inquiries after initial tests for Malaria and HIV were negative.
The newspaper said Sawyer however flew into a rage and behaved in a disruptive manner at First Consultants after he was told he had tested positive for Ebola.
FG Awaits US Response on Request for Drug
Meanwhile, the health minister said yesterday that the federal government was awaiting the response of the US Centre for Disease Control (US CDC) in Atlanta for its request for the experimental drug ZMapp, which was administered to two American aid workers who have shown remarkable signs of recovery after contracting the Ebola virus in Liberia.
Chukwu told reporters on the sidelines of the inauguration of the Defence Identification Centre (DIA) at the Magadishu Cantonment in Abuja, that the US was yet to respond to Nigeria’s request for the supply of the experimental drug, the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) reported.
“We have not received any response from them (America), we have made the request; we believe they will respond to us.
“But we know that this is still an experimental drug, some of the data required are now being collected, but they are now using it on people,” he said.
The minister acknowledged that Nigerian health authorities were not completely sure of the drug’s efficacy, saying: “We are not yet completely sure if there are side effects that will outweigh its benefits”.
He further pointed out that if it was an experimental drug, it was not being produced in commercial quantities.
“So obviously given the demand all over the world, may be there will be challenges about supply, but we are awaiting their formal response,” he said.
Obama Dashes Nigeria’s Hopes
Despite Chukwu’s seeming optimism, Nigeria’s hope was dashed by US President Barack Obama who said yesterday that it was too early to distribute the vaccine.
According to a tweet from Agence France-Presse (AFP), Obama had dashed countless hopes across the continent by disabusing previous notions that the drug got from specially modified tobacco leaves, would be flown out in large quantities to Africa for affected patients.
AFP quoted Obama to have said: “Affected countries should instead focus on building a strong public infrastructure.
“I think we have to let the science guide us. And I don’t think all the information is on whether this drug is helpful.
“It is not an airborne disease. This is one that can be controlled and contained very effectively if we use the right protocols.
“The countries affected are the first to admit that what’s happened here is the public health systems have been overwhelmed. They weren’t able to identify and then isolate cases quickly enough.
“As a consequence, it spread more rapidly than has been typical with the periodic Ebola outbreaks that occurred previously.”
Obama however said the US was working closely with its European partners and WHO to provide resources to help contain the epidemic.
He said: “We’re focusing on the public health approach right now, because we know how to do that, but I will continue to seek information about what we’re learning with respect to these drugs going forward.”