Ebola: Preventing the scourge of emerging and re-emerging zoonotic diseases  

(By Abimbade Ibikunle Faramade)

However, the attention of the government should be drawn to the fact that when it comes to the issue of prevention of deadly diseases, especially, zoonotic diseases, it is not uhuru yet. Ebola disease, its control for which the government has been commended is just one out of many zoonoses that can afflict and decimate human population by way of severe pandemics. Disease such as tuberculosis, though, a chronic disease, has continued to ravage Nigerians because it can be traceable to handling and consumption of unwholesome meat and meat products because of non-compliance with globally accepted standards and procedures in meat inspection nationwide

EBOLA viral disease, formerly referred to as Ebola hemorrhagic fever, discovered and named after Ebola River in Zaire in 1976 has been a major disease of public health importance since its discovery, and most especially, in the 1990s till date. It was found in some countries in the Central and West African sub-regions including Zaire, Gabon, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and lately, Nigeria and Senegal.

   Undoubtedly, the losses incurred in terms of human mortality are enormous. According to the World Health Organisation, more than 2800 people have been lost to the infection across the affected countries. In Nigeria, Ebola disease impact and the socio-economic upheaval associated with it was known only in the realm of scientific research, analysis, and most especially, media reports, but not by direct experience. The reality of this disease did not dawn on Nigeria until the historic and unfortunate adventure of Mr. Patrick Sawyer, a Liberian American, to Lagos, Nigeria on July 20 this year.

   As of now, the Nigerian public seems to be more afraid of the deadly disease than the prevailing security challenges occasioned by insurgency. The government at various levels, especially, the Federal Government and Lagos State government, within whose territory the disease announced its notorious presence, put up a very good and courageous fight against the disease. Even, the spread to Port Harcourt, Rivers State, was contained. This achievement has been applauded by the international community, especially, the World Health Organisation.

   However, the attention of the government should be drawn to the fact that when it comes to the issue of prevention of deadly diseases, especially, zoonotic diseases, it is not uhuru yet. Ebola disease, its control for which the government has been commended is just one out of many zoonoses that can afflict and decimate human population by way of severe pandemics. Disease such as tuberculosis, though, a chronic disease, has continued to ravage Nigerians because it can be traceable to handling and consumption of unwholesome meat and meat products because of non-compliance with globally accepted standards and procedures in meat inspection nationwide.

   There are dearth of facilities at our make-shift slaughter slabs erroneously referred to as abattoirs. Abattoirs are specialised, purpose built, spacious buildings, well equipped with facilities necessary for inspection of live animals before slaughter (ante mortem inspection) and inspection of slaughtered carcasses (post mortem inspection). It also includes decent office accommodation for veterinarians and their subordinates who carry out the technical and rigorous work of meat inspection and amenities for human population who daily throng the place for businesses. There are only a few of such facilities in fewer than five states in the federation. The enormous resources expended on treatment of tuberculosis can be ploughed back to ensure provision of basic abattoir infrastructure and enforcement of minimum standard in meat inspection for the sake of the public safety.

   Over the years, the employment of veterinarians in the public service has been on the decline in many states, for example, in the South-Western part, of the six states none can boast of more than 25 veterinarians—Oyo State has only 16! .This constitutes a grave danger to public health. The relegation of the prominent roles and responsibilities of the veterinarian, especially in the area of value chain creation and addition, has contributed immensely to the inability of livestock farmers and exporters to market Nigeria’s enormous livestock resources outside our shores. It seems the government is not aware of the rich resources inherent in an average veterinarian, which, when tapped, can create positive economic ripple effects on the entire citizenry. We should not wait for a re-emergence of rinderpest disease or a new wave of African swine fever among other diseases of economic importance before we do the needful.

    Rabies, a fatal viral zoonotic disease, contracted usually from the bite of infected animals, especially dogs and cats, is still endemic in Nigeria. Up till now, this disease has continued to ravage Nigerians in a sporadic pattern. This disease has persisted because there is no strategic government plan or intervention to make the disease become history. In the past, the former Federal Department of Livestock and Pest Control Services spearheaded anti rabies campaigns in partnership with state governments. But, due to several impediments, including bureaucratic bottle necks and logistics, such vaccination campaigns have hardly recorded any measurable success. To overcome the menace of rabies, concerted effort, predicated on a necessary and sustainable policy framework should be put in place.

  There is an urgent need for the government to ensure responsible animal ownership, especially, in this case, dogs. Annual anti-rabies vaccination campaigns should be resuscitated. Stray dogs should be eliminated and the general public should be sensitised on a continuous basis.

   Leptospirosis is another zoonotic disease that is of grave concern to public health. The disease is usually transmitted to man via animals such as dogs, cattle, pigs etc. The early symptoms of leptospirosis mimic that of malaria and other febrile disease conditions. Human beings may be infected through food contamination or direct consumption of affected animals. The usual cause of death from this disease is renal failure.

   Brucellosis is a disease that affects kidneys, heart, bones and the reproductive system. It may lead to infertility in men and women. It may also manifest as a cause of abortion in man animals. It is a disease of serious public health concern.

Anthrax disease is caused by bacteria, Bacillus anthracis. Infected animals are characterised by bloody discharges from all the body orifices. Animals that die of this infection MUST not be opened up for post mortem examination in order not to contaminate the environment with the organism to prevent further spread.        This is also to prevent possible transmission to the pathologists. Also, such animals should be given deep burial. It is worthy of note that this disease is associated with ecological changes, e.g., flooding. Even though, if detected early, the disease can be treated, mortality rate remains alarmingly high. Salmonellosis, generally referred to as Typhoid fever is also a zoonotic disease. It is also a disease associated with poor sanitation. In many of our city centres, the problem of urban filth has persisted.

   Poor environmental sanitation is one of the major indices of underdevelopment. It is because of this that, until now; a disease like typhoid fever and cholera and other infectious afflictions are still with us. States and local government should evolve a workable solution to this menace. It is possible, with a strong and sustainable policy direction coupled with the enforcement of the extant laws and an amendment of the obsolete ones, to have a healthier environment that can guarantee good public health. Nigerian scientists should be encouraged to do more work in harnessing the huge potentials inherent in converting our waste to wealth. These examples are just to mention a few.

   Apart from endemic disease problems, there has arisen a need for complete overhauling of the nations’ immigration protocols and quarantine services for animals. How do we solve the problems of unmanned porous borders? How are we going to upgrade our medical and veterinary port infrastructure beyond mere media hype and political discussions? How are we going to develop necessary competent manpower with requisite tools and experience, especially, in specialised areas of medicine and veterinary medicine? These are issues to address before it is too late.

  Since more than 60 per cent of infectious diseases in man originate from animals, concerted efforts should be made by all tiers of government to invest in the provision of adequate animal health care infrastructure, in order to strengthen the diagnostic capacity of public veterinary clinics and hospitals .Employment, training and retraining of veterinary doctors in the public service through participation in seminars and workshops, locally and internationally, should be prioritised.

   Adequate funding of problem solving researches in universities and research institutes such as Pharmaceutical Research Institute, Idu, Abuja, and National Veterinary Research Institute, Vom, Ibadan, by the government, as a matter of policy, should be entrenched. The current knee-jack approach to finding cure to the Ebola disease by emergency assemblage of scientists after Ebola patients have been hospitalised is not desirable. The two American doctors who contracted Ebola in Liberia were ferried to the “Noah’s Ark” at Emory University, United States of America, because that country, through her university, was battle ready to contain the virus since 12 years ago. Though, the deadly strain had not been previously reported in the U.S., then, proactive steps were already taken.

   It is impossible to convince the world that Nigeria is endowed with a huge army of competent educated personnel without the demonstration of equally strong institutions. Strong institutions can only be built by strong men. It is high time Nigeria built strong institutions. It is only by so doing that the overwhelming challenges of zoonotic diseases and other socio-economic upheavals can be overcome.

A stitch in time saves nine.

Dr. Faramade is principal veterinary research officer, National Veterinary Research Institute, Vom, (Ibadan Outstation Laboratory.)

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