By JACOB KUBEKA, Abuja
The Governing Board of the ECOWAS Regional Centre for Surveillance and Disease Control (RCSDC) ended its meeting in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja on Wednesday, with key members of the Board declaring that the body has so far demonstrated its potential for confronting the health challenges of the sub-region.
Speaking to journalists on the sidelines of the meeting, the Director-General of the West African Health Organisation (WAHO), Professor Stanley Okolo, noted that a lot of achievements had so far been made under the watch of the RCSDC in the last four years.
The RCSDC was created by the approval of the 47th ECOWAS Conference of Heads of State in May 2015 to improve response capacities of the region to the recurrent outbreaks of infectious diseases and other public health emergencies.
Okolo recalled that at the time that the sub-region first experienced the dreaded Ebola issue, there was no emphasis and the focus on ensuring the primary and efficient function for the ECOWAS member countries’ national centres for disease control.
“In the past four year, however, this has dramatically changed and what has happened now is that each country now has a national coordinating institute and within that national coordinating institution, we also have an emergency operating centre and we also have a singular point of reference for not only looking at outbreaks when they happen but also picking them out but even before they happen preparing for the response that will happen,” he said.
“The second is that we have already, as a region, set out emergency response teams, which is where we can pull from the pool either from Nigeria or another country to go and support the weaker countries. We are not just waiting for people from outside to help us,” he added.
According to Prof Okolo, the third achievement recorded since the creation of the RCSDC is that ECOWAS has done a lot in terms of training people in the forefront who will be the people that will go to the forefront to district and local level, “and we have set up this communication and are working very well. We call them field epidemiology in technical term.”
He added that a lot of work was being done in terms of research and laboratory, and trying to identify what are the issues that are affecting the ECOWAS member nations.
“I will say that because Nigeria, when the Lassa fever broke out, has been able to research to determine what the specific types of the organisms and the virus causing it within 2 to 3 days but these are usually things that take weeks because you have to send them away and wait for the result,” he stated.
“Therefore, we are actually determining within our region from time to time when we have these issues. This is, of course, with the help of our partners,” he said.
He described the RCSDC, which is located in Abuja, as the coordinating centre for preparedness and response across the region in terms of epidemics.
“It helps to support the individual countries that are the backbone and fulcrum of preparedness for protecting the public. You can see the good work that is going on in the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, and we have similar centres across the other 14 countries of ECOWAS,” he said.
“The second thing that is also important about this regional body is that it is the Africa CDC (cente for disease control) coordinating centre for the western Africa,” said the DG of WAHO.
Also speaking, Dr. Vivian Iwar, interim director of the Regional Animal Health Centre – an ECOWAS agency on animal health based in Bamako, commended the proactive One-Health approach that involves animal health and environmental health, pointing out that in a long time, “We have approached diseases basically from the angle of human health.”
Describing Animal health as very important, Dr. Iwar said, “to me, when the animal population is sick, basically, the human population is also sick. If you talk about Lassa, it comes from the pest and if talk about rabies, it comes from an animal. So, research shows that 75 per cent of diseases emanate from animals. So, you can imagine the importance of one health approach in tackling disease.”
She explained that One-Health deals with the collaboration with expertise in human health, animal health and environmental health. “Professionals work together to proffer solutions to the issues of diseases. If you understand the aspect of human health, animal health and the environment in which there is interplay of these issues, it’s an innovative approach towards conquering the problem of diseases.”
On his part, the Director the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu said: “We are very proud to host the regional centre for disease control for West Africa here in Nigeria. Today we host the Governing Board meeting of the regional centre for disease control.
“You see in West Africa where one of the most progressive regions in African we have free travels across West Africa of goods and people. What that means is that there is free travel for infection and we as a community have to come together to ensure that we protect ourselves and we share information, share opportunities for prevent, detect and respond to some of these diseases,” he said.
He explained that the work that his team at the NCDC was doing with their colleagues from other countries “is to make sure that we have the information, the capacity, the human resources, the technical capacity how to not only do the work that we are doing in Nigeria but to share that across the region to ensure that not only Nigeria’s population is protected but we also protect the population of the entire West African region.”
Today, we have a firm commitment across West Africa to work together so whatever other partners come, we say this is what this partner is doing on the laboratory side, please support us in this other side.
“To me, our biggest challenge in this part of the world is necessarily the hardware, but the software. How can we speak together? We are actually at the forefront of anything that has to do with Lassa fever not only in Africa but globally,” Dr. Ihekweazu said.
Asked what the Governing Board that has the oversight on the functions of the ECOWAS RCDC, was doing about the fact that Nigeria was still recording pockets of Lassa fever, Prof. Okolo said: “Let me be absolutely clear, the state we are in today, we cannot say to you that we totally prevent epidemics, two; we cannot say to you that we can predict where and when epidemics will occur and that will make people aware it is actually what we do as individuals, not as profession. The professionals ourselves we will have to prepare, we will have to have surveillance but the surveillance also is from the individuals and is in terms of behavioral change how people start taking care of themselves in terms of their health.”
“That is why at this meeting we also have people from the animal health. Some of these diseases are in the animals and we need train ourselves and change our behavior to start thinking of what are those practices that we have to make us likely to contract these diseases. In terms of us saying to you that we can abolish it or we can tell you where it can be, no, and that is the importance of what is happening here,” he maintained.
Continuing, the WAHO DG said: “We prepare to make sure that when it comes and we also make sure that we look at the areas. We have people that will report to us, the role private laboratories, we have the role of hospitals, we have the role of individuals and today before we came this meeting, we went to the International Airport that was opened by his Excellency the president, and one of the things we did there is that WAHO put a camera so that when people coming to the International Airport, he is screened within five seconds. It screens people within five seconds to know whether somebody has a high fever or has other symptoms, we put them aside and then we look at them further. These are the evidence of the improvement that we have made not only in Nigeria, but across the region.”
Asked whether with this in place, specimen would no longer be sent abroad, Okolo said that even with use of the most sophisticated means, “we still sent specimen, but I am saying it is not like before where we need to send everything away when we have to use outdated methods when we have to wait for weeks before we know the kind of virus we are dealing with but now we get that quicker.”
“We have also done something across the region where we have accredited improved laboratories. There are 15 countries in ECOWAS, at the moment we have 12 reference laboratories that we sent our specimen. In some countries we have to laboratories 2 of such laboratories but in Nigeria we have 3 reference laboratories, one of them is for animals,” he added.