•To start screening persons, goods from China
•Urges Nigerians not to panic, directs NCDC labs to be ready
•54 killed, 1,287 infected, US, Malaysia, Australia, 9 others affected
•Lagos: We’re prepared for any eventuality
•As Lassa fever kills 29 in 11 states

Onyebuchi Ezigbo in Abuja and Martins Ifijeh in Lagos

Following the recent outbreak of Coronavirus, a deadly virus, in no fewer than 12 countries, resulting in the death of about 54 persons, with about 1,287 others infected, the federal government has commenced a 24-hour round-the-clock vigilance to check the import of the killer virus, believed to have originated from China.

However, as part of initiatives to prevent the spread of the virus to Nigeria, the government has ordered the screening of persons and goods from China, even as it enjoined the Nigerian people not to panic, because it has instructed the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) to get the laboratories ready in the event that anyone was infected.

Sharing equal confidence with the federal government, the Lagos State government has said it was prepared too for any eventuality, should Nigeria catch the virus that has now spread from Wuhan city in China, to Thailand, Vietnam, United States, Japan, Republic of Korea, Singapore, UK, Australia, Nepal, Malaysia and France, thereby fueling global panic.

Chief Executive Officer of NCDC, Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, hinted at the development in an exclusive chat with THISDAY, whilst another source within the agency also said the country has further secured the collaboration of the Chinese authorities to ensure that passengers and goods leaving China for Nigeria were made to undergo screening at both ends of the journey.

While asking Nigerians not to panic, the federal government reiterated that it had put measures in place to prevent the public health threat, as well as the management of the outbreak should it find its way into the country.

Ihekweazu said the World Health Organisation (WHO) has not placed any travel ban between China and other countries, and that no country has done that, including Nigeria. He, however, said travel ban has been severely restricted out of Wuhan province in China, the epicenter of the outbreak.

“Currently, there is no known case of the virus detected in Nigeria. The WHO Regional Director for Africa on Friday assured Africans that no case of the virus is in any African country. However, we are working very hard to be prepared in the event of an outbreak. It is precisely for events like this that the NCDC was set up.

“Since the first cases were confirmed in China earlier this month, we have been in close contact with WHO, the Africa CDC and other coordinating bodies.
“We set up an Epidemic Information Management Group that includes representatives from Port Health Services of the Federal Ministry of Health, WHO and other partners. This group meets daily to review the situation globally, assess the risks to Nigeria and provide recommendations for action.

“It is very important for the right information to be disseminated. A public health advisory was issued to Nigerians to inform members of the public on steps to take if they suspected that there was a case of Coronavirus around them. We have also provided guidance to state ministries of health on what to do if they had a suspected case.”

According to Ihekweazu, over the last three years, the federal government had strengthened capacity at the NCDC’s National Reference Laboratory to provide molecular diagnosis for various disease pathogens, adding that at the moment, the centre has received advice from WHO to use the primers for the new virus and that the centres are no longer what they used to be.

On whether the country has the capacity to address Coronavirus should there be an outbreak in Nigeria, Ihekweazu, whose centre is responsible for the country’s national health security, said Nigeria has improved in its JEE rating from 39 per cent in 2017 to 46 per cent in 2019, adding that it has worked very hard to ensure it is able to prevent, detect and respond to infectious disease outbreaks and public health emergencies.

“We have established a National Reference Laboratory with the capacity to test for all epidemic prone diseases in Nigeria as well as highly pathogenic infections such as Ebola. We continue to build capacity in our network of laboratories across states in Nigeria.
“During outbreaks, countries are guided by advice from the WHO on travel and trade related bans through the International Health Regulations. Currently, WHO has not placed any ban on travel between China and other countries.

“We have advised travelers to Wuhan in China to restrict contact with livestock and livestock produce as well as with ill patients. NCDC has also advised travelers from Wuhan, China with symptoms to report to NCDC on arrival in Nigeria.”
He, therefore, called on Nigerians to remain calm, noting that the Federal Ministry of Health, through the NCDC and its partners were fully committed to strengthening the country’s preparedness and response to infectious disease outbreaks.
“Our advice to travellers from China is to report immediately to a port health officer on entry or to NCDC, if they felt ill.

“In addition, members of the public are advised to adhere to preventive measures, like several other infectious diseases such as washing of hands regularly with soap under running water; covering of mouth and nose properly with handkerchief when sneezing and/or coughing. You may also cough into your elbow if handkerchief is not available.

“Avoid close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing and sneezing. Avoid self-medication, report to the nearest health facility, when you experience any of the above-mentioned symptoms. Healthcare workers are always advised to observe standard infection prevention and control measures when attending to patients and take a travel history.”

On his part, the NCDC source, who pleaded anonymity, also said a technical team has been set up to assess and monitor development regarding the Coronavirus on a daily basis.
He admitted, too, that the agency has gained a lot of experience over the years, since the outbreak of the Ebola disease, adding that in terms of facilities, it has also set up specialist laboratory centres, where difficult medical issues could be referred.

For instance, he said the NCDC, last week, organised a risk assessment exercise in collaboration with the World Health Organisation, federal ministry health, its Port services officials as well as other partners in order to further strengthen the country’s preparedness against Coronavirus.

“NCDC has built up significant level of experience in the handling of such disease outbreaks having been part of the team that tackled the Ebola outbreak in the country. Beside our personnel posted at the airports, we have an isolation centre at Yaba in Lagos.

“The aim of the risk assessment exercise is to find out the weak link in the preparation and to quickly address it. It is also to assess the risk of importation of the virus disease and to monitor the spread of the disease. NCDC has also set up a multi-sectoral working group that sits everyday to respond to any report of outbreak,” he said.

He said it was not only at the airports that NCDC had mounted a 24-hour vigilance, but also at all the ports of entry including the border posts.
On the collaboration between the federal and state agencies in dealing with Coronavirus, he said it had put all states on alert and was relying on those with capacities to manage disease outbreak of this magnitude.

He said the Lagos state government, for example, has a huge quarantine system that has been improved upon since the days of Ebola outbreak.

Lagos: We’re Prepared for Any Eventuality
However, reiterating the confidence and capacity of the Lagos State government to tackle any eventuality, the Commissioner for Health, Lagos State, Prof. Akin Abayomi, at the weekend, inspected the Mainland Hospital, Yaba, which is the state’s infectious disease hospital and former site for the treatment of Ebola during the 2014 outbreak.
He said the visit was to evaluate the facility’s level of preparedness for management of possible outbreak of Coronavirus.

“We have inspected the isolation and treatment wards, quarantine unit, proposed site for the expansion of the isolation wards, and mini emergency operations centre, and we are satisfied at the level of preparedness to handle any possible outbreak,” he said.

LASSA Fever Kills 29 in 11 States

Meanwhile, the NCDC, last night, said 29 deaths had been reported in 11 states out of the 195 confirmed cases of Lassa fever in the country.
A statement issued by Ihekweazu, said NCDC has activated a National Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) to coordinate response activities.

“As at the 24th of January 2020, 195 confirmed cases and 29 deaths had been reported in 11 states. Of the confirmed cases, 89% are from Ondo, Edo and Ebonyi States. The increase in the number of cases at this time of the year is not unusual due to ecological factors”.

The National EOC, the agency said, included representatives from the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Federal Ministry of Environment, World Health Organization, UNICEF, US Centers for Disease Control, and other partners.

NCDC said it would continue to support states in strengthening their preparedness and response capacity, noting that over the last three weeks, it had deployed Rapid Response Teams to support five of the affected states.

The statement also said the Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire, had led a high-level delegation to Kano State on Saturday following the deaths of two health workers infected with Lassa fever.

In addition, NCDC said it has rapidly increased risk communications and community engagement activities to ensure that Nigerians are aware of the risks of Lassa fever and measures to protect themselves.

The NCDC statement claimed that there has been a decline in fatality rate of reported Lassa fever cases from 23.4% in 2019 to 14.8% this year.
“NCDC continues to support treatment centres across states in the country to effectively manage Lassa fever cases. In addition, five laboratories in Nigeria have the capacity to diagnose Lassa fever in Nigeria.

“These laboratories are critical to reducing turnaround time between identifying a suspected case and confirmation. This ensures prompt case management and other response activities, thereby reducing the number of deaths,” it said.
It further said Nigeria was contributing to research and other activities for the development of a Lassa fever vaccine.

The agency said NCDC and the three main treatment centres in the country – Irrua Specialist Teaching Hospital, Federal Medical Centre Owo and Alex Ekwueme Federal Teaching Hospital Abakalilki – were set up to commence Lassa fever epidemiological studies that would provide data to guide research and response activities.

Lassa fever is endemic in Nigeria and cases are recorded all year round. The Lassa fever virus is transmitted by rodents, which can be found in our environment. .
Lassa fever is largely transmitted through contact with items or surfaces contaminated with urine, faeces, saliva or blood of infected rats. It could also be transmitted from person-to-person through contact with blood, urine, faeces and other body fluids of an infected person.

To minimise the risk of infection, members of the public have been advised to ensure their environment is always kept clean to avoid contact with rodents.
Early symptoms are fever, headache, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, sore throat etc. It is in very severe cases that the patient bleeds from body openings. Thus, if a patient did not respond to treatment for malaria or other febrile illnesses after 48 hours, it is important to test immediately for Lassa fever.