Prof. Alash’le Abimiku is the Co-founder, International Research Center of Excellence at the Institute of Human Virology, Nigeria. In this interview with Kuni Tyessi, She spoke on how Nigeria can curb outbreaks and epidemics through policy formulations, increased workforce and adequate funding. Excerpts:
Epidemics have continued to be a challenge and sometimes developing into pandemics. What is the way forward?
All of us have to be ready towards preventing the next outbreak of epidemic and everybody has a role, starting from the community. We have to do a lot of education, for example, the case of Lassa virus. The community needs to know that it is caused by rats. If you keep rats within your home or within the community, you stand a risk. Another is about cholera and hygiene. So we really need to up our game within the community and this has to be sustained, so that these diseases can be addressed. The other area is intelligence. At the community, those who will be the first to inform about epidemics are members of the community.
Your recent conference was on laboratory medicine within the African continent. Why the emphasis?
The ASLM is focusing on laboratories. They have to know how to translate samples very safely, especially during outbreaks. If the right technology and gadget is used, there is actually nothing to fear. So the laboratories have to be equipped to do that. The clinicians also have to be trained on how to manage a person that has fever or has lost a lot of blood fluids before they get themselves right. Then our policy makers and the government have to create the workforce and environment where the individuals are happy doing their work. The epidemic might be happening in Togo and they might not have the equipment to test the samples. Those samples should be tested in Nigeria or Ghana.
Why the choice of Nigeria as venue for the conference after three bi- annual conferences?
This is the fourth conference and it is every two years. The last three took place in Cape Town and there were reasons because they have better facilities, good halls that can take the kind of number we are talking about and more importantly, a lot of industries are involved. At the last one, the board decided that one of the ways of owning this project as Africans despite appreciating the beauty of Cape Town is to take the conference elsewhere. The board considered a lot of issues and apart from South Africa, the largest membership after South Africa is Nigeria and so we thought it appropriate to bring it here. Not every African country is involved in this.
Are there modalities you are putting in place towards ensuring that all African states are carried along?
We have to strengthen our cross country borders, because when these epidemics hit, they go across countries. What ASLM should be doing is using the facility and networking that we’ve been doing to begin to pull other countries that are not as responsive by taking these things to them. We have been working with the minister of health and he has dedicated himself to this and has added members of his staff. We also have the NCDC Bill being passed and it’s really a plus.
Is Nigeria doing enough in terms of funding for health related issues, and what are possible ways forward?
Funding for health strengthening has always been difficult. It’s an area of disappointment for me. It is always very low funded. Our health systems are broken. A lot of laboratory infrastructures that has been built in the country were built by foreign funds for example; PEPFA is funding 80 per cent of what we are doing. So obviously, we are not funding it enough. The government talked about insurance recently because we all need insurance to get all our lab tests, and best care but that has been a struggle. Unless we really work on that, we are really not prepared. I think they are doing a good job in putting together the policies and trying to convene the right group of people, like ECOWAS that has been talking about the simplification of the regulatory bodies across Africa and experienced in sharing data and samples. So if you look at our hospitals and labs, we are not doing enough and we still fear the next epidemic.
Can you give an estimate of what it would cost to effectively fund laboratory medicine in Nigeria?
In terms of figure, I really can’t give that but will talk about the activities. Are we providing enough education to our communities? I don’t think so. Look at Lassa; we really are not doing enough. So the government has to put funding in place to educating its people in the community and putting in place a structure that will collect the data and make policy makers to look at the data and the trend and then the labs and containment needed and then the hospitals should have the right isolation for all the people infected.
Will you say that Nigeria’s population is affecting its attainment of health for all?
Not really. I don’t see that as a disadvantage. The fact of the matter is that we are in a zone that is endemic for Lassa, but we also know how it is transmitted. We know it is preventable. If we can fumigate our houses, limit mice and rats coming and covering our foods, then we know we can stop it. But every single year when people are dying from Lassa, that’s the time people will go out and you will see folks talking on television and saying this is how it can be prevented. Vaccination is another thing.
Why are people not vaccinated against yellow fever?
There is a vaccine that works. All of these have to do with education and strengthening the health system. Another is having enough work force. If you don’t have enough work force that will go out to vaccinate 180 million people, with a big population, we are bound to have challenges if workforce is inadequate.
What should be the take home message after a laudable outing?
It is important that we as professionals continue to network. First and foremost, in our profession, we can do the best job possible. Every single test in the lab is dependable towards saving lives. Secondly, we need to be advocates for our profession and for our communities as well. We have to begin to take that information back to our government because a number of our professionals are good at what they do, but we are not the best advocates. We just sit and do our work and not to go out and talk.