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Virology Centre lies fallow as Lassa fever ravages Ebonyi



Virology Centre lies fallow as Lassa fever ravages Ebonyi

House probes shoddy dealings in centre’s construction


In what has become a recurring decimal, the dreaded Lassa fever virus has resurfaced in the country, ravaging 10 states with 16 deaths recorded so far, UCHENNA INYA reports


Ebonyi State and other states of the federation are always associated with Lassa fever virus every dry season. In the last one week, the state has been battling to control the virus which returned in full force.


The disease has since 2005 claimed over 40 health workers and caused uncountable number of deaths in the state. It has spread to 10 states of the federation since the beginning of this year when it resurfaced. The states are Ebonyi, Edo, Ondo, Bauchi, Nassarawa, Anambra, Benue, Kogi, Imo and Lagos.


According to the statistics released by the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), in these 10 states, 107 suspected Lassa fever cases have been recorded with 16 deaths. Out of these figures, Ebonyi has nine confirmed cases and about five deaths.


Early last week, there was fresh outbreak of the disease and two medical doctors, Felix Ali and Abel Udoh as well as a nurse, Innocent Iwe, who were all working with the Federal Teaching Hospital Abakaliki (FETHA), died of the virus. They have all been buried to prevent spread of the virus. Until his death, Ali was in Department of Community Medicine while Udo was in the Department of Otorhinolaryngology.

Ali, who hailed from Mgbom community, Afikpo in Afikpo North Local Government of Ebonyi State, left his wife and three children. Udoh, on the other hand, hailed from Akwa Ibom State but married about three years ago to an Ebonyi State woman from Effium in Ohaukwu Local Government Area. Both doctors attended Ebonyi State University (EBSU).



The nurse, Iwe, hailed from Imo State. Udoh operated on a patient suspected to have had Lassa fever three weeks ago and died, the patient also died. Ali had complications of Lassa fever and he was taken to Irrua Specialist Hospital, where he passed away.


On getting the information of Lassa fever outbreak in FETHA, patients, visitors and health workers of the hospital fled. But the hospital was later fumigated to contain the virus. Worried by the development, the National Obstetric Fistula Centre (NOFIC), Abakaliki, evacuated its patients from the hospital following the outbreak of Lassa fever at the FETHA to an undisclosed hospital.


NOFIC and a Lassa fever virology centre built by the state government and taken over by the Federal Government are located in the same place inside the FETHA. When our correspondent visited NOFIC, no patient was there. An official of the hospital, who gave his name simply as Jacob, said all the patients in the hospital were evacuated to another hospital.



He said: “You know this hospital is located beside this virology centre and some of the patients, including the deceased, were taken to the Virology Centre before being evacuated to Irua Specialist Hospital where some of them died early this week. “So, our management feel it is very imperative to evacuate all our patients out of our hospital even though the virology centre has been fumigated.”


Jacob disclosed that some of the patients that were evacuated from the hospital had just being operated.


The state government built the N350 million ultra-modern Lassa Fever Virology Centre, located inside the FETHA, but was taken over by the Federal Government. But the fresh outbreak of the virus showed that the centre is not functioning as the victims were all taken to Irua Lassa Fever Specialist Hospital, Edo State for medical attention.


Death toll in the fresh outbreak of the disease has risen to four. According to statistics released by the state government through the Commissioner for Health, Dr. Daniel Umezuruike, at a joint press conference with his Education counterpart, Prof John Ekeh, the state has a total of nine confirmed Lassa fever cases and four deaths.


Three patients are currently on treatment while 139 persons have been placed under surveillance. In anger, Association of Resident Doctors at the FETHA has declared a 21-day sit-at-home to mourn their colleagues and compel the Federal Government to equip the Virology Centre in the state.


The doctors blamed the Federal Government for the death of their colleagues through the Lassa fever outbreak. They staged a peaceful protest at the Government House, Abakaliki, the Ebonyi State capital, to show their grievances.


The doctors carried placards with inscriptions to vent their anger. They noted that apart from those confirmed dead, another house officer was currently in  a critical situation at the Irrua Specialist Hospital, Edo State. Leader of the protesting doctors, Onwe Mbam, said that since 2005 till date, “there has not been any year that Lassa fever has not killed a health worker”. He said after the construction of the Virology Centre, Governor Dave Umahi handed it to the Federal Government, which promised to equip it.


He said nothing had been done since then. Mbam said some of the doctors and the nurses who later died as a result of the outbreak were first taken to the Virology Cente before they were taken to Irrua Specialist Hospital.


He said: “We had expected the Federal Government who had before now promised to equip the place to do so. Dr. Felix stayed there a day and his counterpart, Dr. Udoh while the nurse stayed four days there before he was also taken to Irrua where he also died.” Mbam said the doctor was buried immediately to avoid spread of the disease. He added: “Immediately Dr. Felix died, they wrapped him in a body bag, put him in an ambulance and moved him down from Irrua to FETHA gate where we followed him to his village. Before then, we had already communicated them to dig a grave before our arrival.

On getting to the village, we put on our hazmat suits, brought out the corpse, put it in the casket we bought and dumped him in the grave. “Unfortunately, it was only the brother and four villagers that summoned the courage to come close because the disease is highly contagious.


Regrettably, the second doctor, Dr. Udoh is still lying in a wooden box close to the mortuary at hazmat suits l. The fact is that, they cannot take him inside the mortuary because he will contaminate other bodies in the mortuary.”


Mbam urged the Federal Government to fulfil its promise by fully equipping the Virology Centre. Reacting, the Senior Special Assistant (SSA) to the governor on Health Services, Sunday Nwangele, said the state had taken “some measures to avert the spread”. He added that a virologist had been invited by the state government to manage the centre and train other virologists in the state on how to run the centre.


Nwangele said that on arrival, the virologist would manage all outstanding cases for about two months and put in place every outstanding machine in the centre before leaving the state. He said the contact tracing committee had commenced work while the governor had released substantial amount of money to ensure that the situation was brought under control.


The SSA urged the doctors to remain calm and go about their normal business and assured them of government’s commitment to their safety and welfare.


Arising from its emergency CONTINUED FROM PAGE 27 general meeting held at the Association of Resident Doctors (ARD FETHA) Secretariat, Abakaliki, the Ebonyi State branch of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), in a communiqué signed by its Chairman, Dr. Ikwudinma Austin, and Secretary, Dr. Ariom Anthony Ifeanyi, the association urged the Federal Government to promptly equip and activate to an optimal functioning capacity, the Virology Centre to serve Lassa fever patients.


“Since the facility was built by the Ebonyi State government and designated a Virology Centre, despite no functionality, there has been increased referral cases from neighbouring states like Cross River, Benue, Enugu, Imo, Abia, hence increasing the risk of the staff of FETHA and surrounding communities as diagnosis can still not be made in the said Virology Centre.


“The Federal Government should live up to its promises through the Hon. Minister of Health, Prof Isaac Adewole, on the 5th of September 2016, to make the Virology Centre in Abakaliki a national referral centre by making it functional,” the communiqué reads in part.


It called on the management of the FETHA and other hospitals to acknowledge the endemic nature of Lassa fever and promptly provide basic personnel protective equipment for safe health service delivery in the state. “To buttress this fact, the epidemic killed two medical doctors in less than one week of developing symptoms. A nurse, who had been on Ribavirin, a very potent drug in the treatment of Lassa fever, still deteriorated and died.


This makes it a national security issue and calls for declaration of a state of emergency in the health sector in the state. “The Federal Government should not play politics with this and urgently rise to the occasion of securing the lives of inhabitants of Ebonyi State and the entire South East region,” the communiqué added. Meanwhile, public, private and mission schools in the state have been shut down for one week following the outbreak of the virus.

The Commissioner for Health, Dr. Daniel Umezuruike, and his Education counterpart, Prof John Eke, said the measure was to control the spread of the disease. Umezurike said: “There are outbreaks of a similar disease in other states of the federation and in Ebonyi State; record has it that we have a total of nine confirmed cases and four deaths. We have three patients on treatment and all of them are doing well.


We have contact tracing and we have 139 people we have kept on surveillance. “So, the situation is under control because we have set up all the committees and strategies to ensure that this disease is brought under control within the shortest possible time and the strategies are working out well. We don’t have new cases of the disease as at yesterday, so the situation has been brought under control.


“Schools’ closure came up when we had three positive cases and Ministry of Education noticed that one of them has children in schools and closed down schools in Ebonyi State. We have put all the strategies in place and everything is working out. We believe that the situation will be brought under control. “The deaths are very unfortunate and we sympathise with the families of the deceased.


One of the circumstances surrounding the deaths was late presentation because the three cases came from three axes. “In one of the cases, a doctor took ill two weeks ago and he was taken self-medication; treating himself of malaria and typhoid.”


On his part, Ekeh said the situation was not alarming, adding that things were under control. The shutting down of schools in the state created panic among students, pupils, teachers and parents. Ekeh said the decision was taken following a mother who tested positive to the disease. When our correspondent visited some public, private and mission schools in Abakaliki at 8:30a.m. last Thursday, parents were seen withdrawing their children from the schools on hearing the shutting down of schools by the government. Management of the schools were on ground to ensure that those who came to school were asked to return home.


A teacher, Miss Ifeanyinwa Nwokoro, bemoaned the outbreak of the disease and said that they decided to comply with government’s directive in the interest of their children. Meanwhile, all the public, private and mission schools earlier shut to control the spread of the Lassa fever have reopened by the state government. The Commissioner for Education, Ekeh said the schools were reopened as no new case of the disease had been reported.


Ekeh commiserated with the  families who lost their loved ones and urged all residents to always keep their environment clean. He said: “The measure taken by government prevented the disease from spreading into schools, and I am happy that we did not lose any of our pupils or students to the disease. “The government and people of Ebonyi State sympathise and condole with families that lost their loved ones to the disease. We, however, call on the public to maintain good personal hygiene to stay safe. “We also appeal to our teachers and school administrators to redouble their efforts so as to cover the second term academic calendar.”


As the panic over the outbreak of Lassa fever in the state raged, the state House of Assembly summoned the contractors that built the Lassa Fever Virology Centre in the state which the Federal Government took over.


The Chairman, House Committee on Health, Oliver Osi, approached the speaker in a matter of urgent public importance during plenary of the House at the Assembly Complex, Nkaliki Road, Abakaliki, praying the house to liaise with the National Assembly Committees on Health to make budgetary provision for the centre this year for enhanced performance.



He also called on relevant agencies to come to the assistance of the state to contain the virus. The lawmaker also condemned the inability of the Federal Government to put the centre into optimal use. Osi prayed the House to invite the contractor, Dr. Charles Akujuobi from COSCHARIS to appear before the House and explain why he could not install all the equipment in the centre as provided in the contract agreement.


He said: “Mr. Speaker, honourable colleagues, the state government has invested so much in the building of the centre and subsequently handed it over to the Federal Government. We are surprised that the Federal Government has not fully utilised the centre.


We are told that the dialysis and the PCR units are not operational despite the money paid to the contractor. Up till now, samples are still being taken to Benin for test.”


The motion, which was seconded by Mrs. Franca Okpo of Abakaliki North constituency, sparked reactions from the lawmakers who condemned the ugly scenario and called for stiffer punishment for those who contributed to the death of the medical staff. The Deputy Speaker, Hon. Odefa Obasi Odefa, regretted that one of the victims was an old boy of Government Secondary School, Afikpo who worked hard to reach the status of a medical doctor only to die as a result of sabotage.


He called for the prosecution of the individuals by the anti-graft agencies to serve as deterrent to others. While reacting to the submissions of the members, the Speaker, Hon. Francis Nwifuru, described it as wickedness and negligence. He upheld the prayers as contained in the report after making some amendments. Governor Dave Umahi has also described the outbreak of the disease as unfortunate. Umahi, who immediately approved N7 million to control the virus, said all relatives of the victims must be put on close monitoring.


He said: “We were told that the Lassa fever emanated from efforts to save the life of somebody from Ala Hausa (the place inhabited by Hausa people) who also journeyed outside the state to the Hausa Quarters. “But the annoying thing is that since we handed over the Lassa fever centre (Virology Centre) to the Federal Government, they have not fully taken it over. It is not fully functional. That also very annoying is that the committee we set up to build the place and equip it did not tell us that the supplier of the equipment has not fully installed them.


“Nobody told us and that is very sad. So, we have had several meetings; yesterday and today and so we have agreed that we will release N5 million for them to source for experts from Benin and Lagos states. I have also called the Minister of Health, he also sent experts from Abuja. “So, N5 million is to activate the place fully and get experts to start training. We are committed to spending more funds as needs would arise.


“In a our meeting with NMA, FETHA CMD and their team this morning, we agreed to release the sum of N2 million because the contact is from Ala Hausa to Macgregor Martha Hospital to the Federal Teaching Hospital, Abakaliki.


“So, what we have agreed is to get three names from NMA to be members of the Lassa Fever Committee and then, get a subcommittee out of that so that they will now be on a kind of monitoring divided into groups. One will be at Ala Hausa, the other one at FETHA and then Martha Hospital.”

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