Highlights of the Health Sector in 2020

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As the year 2020 gradually comes to an end, Onyebuchi Ezigbo captures some of the key events that shaped this highly eventful and turbulent year, especially in the health sector

The year, 2020 will no doubt go down in world history as one of the most remarkable in recent times. It is a year that challenged every of mankind’s ingenuinety and technological prowers. It is a year that the whole world was literally brought to its kneels by a novel virus named COVID-19, which has remained incurable at least for now.

It took everyone by storm, not even the world powers saw it coming nor were they prepared for it. From Wuhan, the commercial city of China, the virus struck the world from one end to the other, spreading fear, agony and lamentation among families of victims. The reality of the virus and its fearsome impact came to Nigeria on February 26 when a young Italian on a business trip to Abeokuta, in Ogun State, landed with the disease in Lagos.

Outbreak of COVID-19 Pandemic

After days of fears and anxiety, Nigerians finally came to terms with the importation of dreaded COVID-19 virus through an Italian citizen who works in Nigeria and Milan, Italy. The news first broke through the social media and the mainstream media before it was finally confirmed by the Federal Ministry of Health.

The case, which was confirmed on February 27, 2020, was that of the

Italian citizen who works in Nigeria and returned from Milan, Italy to Lagos, Nigeria on February 25, 2020. He was confirmed by the Virology Laboratory of the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, part of the Laboratory Network of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control. The virus was managed at the Infectious Disease Hospital in Yaba, Lagos.

From then on, the virus spread like wild fire to many other states of the country. This became a pandemic and the World Health Organisation (WHO) immediately pronounced it so.

The government responded to the outbreak by setting up a multi-sectoral coronavirus preparedness group led by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). NCDC immediately activated its national Emergency Operations Centre to work closely with Lagos State Health authorities to respond to the case and implement firm control measures. The disease with little known mode of infection and impact stoked fears and the initial health advisory was that most people who become infected may experience only mild illness and recover easily, but it can be more severe in others, particularly the elderly and persons with other underlying chronic illnesses. More frightening was the fact COVID-19 has no known cure.

Lockdown

As the threat of virus continued to rage, the federal government ordered the lockdown of two states, Lagos, and Ogun with the Federal Capital Territory ( FCT) in a bid to check the spread. President Muhammadu Buhari later extended the lockdown to other parts of the country, thus shutting down all entry points into the country and restricting physical movement by the people. Airports, churches, markets, schools and business were grounded. It was a harrowing experience as hunger and frustration set in among the citizens who have exhausted their stock of food stuff and could no longer bear the situation.

Then came the sharing of palliative to the poor, vulnerable and disadvantaged persons. A largely unprepared and newly created Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs found it an uphill task supervising the massive humanitarian emergency. The challenge of meeting the food supply needs of the people became so enormous that the federal government was forced implement a programme of gradual easing of the lockdown.

Controversy over Herbal Remedy

With the devastating impact of virus came the desperate search for a vaccine or drug regiment for the treatment of COVID-19. While scientists and medical experts engaged in the highly tasking research for a vaccine, the traditional medicine practioners in Nigeria joined the fray.

Of all the claims made by proponents of herbal medicine remedy, Madagascar’s COVID-19 herbal concoction became most pronounced based on the endorsement it go from government of Madagascar.

In April, Madagascar’s President Andry Rajoelina officially launched the CVO, an organic herbal concoction, claiming that it can prevent and cure patients. However, the herbal drug failed to get the certification of relevant Nigerian health regulatory agencies. In a report presented to the Health Ministry on Sunday, National Institute of Pharmaceutical Research and Development (NIPRD) said safety studies show that COVID-Organics (CVO) do not alter the normal physiology of the animals.

NIPRD’s Director Deneral, Obi Adigweo told reporters that Madagascar officials were hiding CVO analysis. “They are hiding a lot of things and I think it is possible that they know that they don’t have strong science backing up their claim. But our own analysis does not show any proof that it can cure COVID-19,” he was quoted by a local daily, The Punch.

Also, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned against the use of CVO without medical supervision and cautioned against self-medication.

Production of Vaccines for COVID-19

As the reality dawned on every one that this virus has come to stay, about 172 countries and multiple candidate vaccines are engaged in the collaborative effort to produce COVID-19 vaccine and to float a global access facility intended to ensure equal access to COVID-19 vaccines. Nigeria is among these countries under the auspices of COVAS.

The global initiative is aimed at working with vaccine manufacturers to provide countries worldwide equitable access to safe and effective vaccines, once they are licensed and approved. COVAX currently has the world’s largest and most diverse COVID-19 vaccine portfolio – including nine candidate vaccines, with a further nine under evaluation and conversations underway with other mayor producers.

FG Rolls Out Plans to Acquire COVID-19 Vaccines

The year also saw Nigeria rolling out strategies to join the rest the world in competing for the COVID-19 vaccines. The federal government said it has set aside N10 billion in the 2021 Budget for the purpose of procurement and evaluation of the vaccines when they are ready.

The government also said a task team has been constituted to help in mobilising resources and advising government on how best to utilise such resources to effectively deal with the pandemic. Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire made the disclosures while speaking at the media briefing by the Presidential Taskforce on COVID-19 pandemic in Abuja last Monday.

He said Nigeria floated a vaccine company known as, Bio-Vaccine Nigeria Limited, a joint venture between the federal government and a private company to carry out not only research but also to look at the options of producing vaccines in license.

In the same vein, the federal government raised a task team made up of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Finance, Central Bank of Nigeria and CACOVID to help government in mobilising resources needed for providing the vaccines. Government’s move came on heels of an announcement that the vaccines may be ready for use in a matter of months.

According to Ehanire, “as part of the deal struck under the COVAS facility, every member country including Nigeria is to benefit from guaranteed supply of at least vaccinnes regiment for 20 per cent of her vulnerable population.”

Nigerian-made COVID-19 Candidate Vaccine Underway

The Nigeria Institute of Medical Research (NIMR), one of key research centres in the country, engaged in the search for medical solution to COVID-19 pandemic, has expressed the hope that Nigeria may soon join the league of countries with breakthroughs in the development of candidate vaccines for tackling the pandemic.

Hope for this medical feat was given by the Director General of NIMR, Professor Babatunde Lawal Salako. Speaking earlier in the year, at the Ministerial Health Sector Media Engagement in Abuja, the Director General of NIMR, Professor Babatunde Lawal Salako said the institute is making progress with the research into COVID-19 Vaccine and will in next few months be able to come up with a candidate vaccine.

He said the institute was compelled to undertake the research for COVID-19 Vaccine due to the public concern about the ravaging threat of the novel virus. “We had to go back the sequence of the virus which we developed and started looking at how we can clone the virus. Now we have passed through that stages and we are going through bioformatics, trying to clone the virus so that we can come up with a candidate Vaccine”.

Prof. Salako however said that producing a candidate Vaccine does not automatically lead to the invention of a vaccine, adding that out of the many candidate vaccines so far developed, only a few got to clinical stage.

Nigeria to Get Certification for COVID-19 Vaccines

The National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) has said that it is working hard to obtain International certification to enable Nigeria manufacture vaccines locally.

Director-General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), Prof. Mojisola Adeyeye, last Friday expressed confidence that Nigeria would soon start manufacturing vaccines, with the upgrading of existing laboratories across the country. She said this during NAFDAC’s Staff Recognition and Award Ceremony for 2019 and 2020, for serving and retired staff held recently in Abuja.

NPHCDA To Avert 2.05 million Under Five Deaths

The Executive Director of the National Primary Healthcare Development Agency (NPHCDA), Dr. Faisal Shuaibu, gave indications that federal government plans to drastically reduce maternal and child deaths through the ongoing efforts to revamp healthcare facilities in the country.

He said apart from seeking to attain the lofty goals of universal health coverage, the improvement in healthcare delivery system will avert 2.05 million under 5 deaths and an additional 1.03 million neonatal over the next 10 years, adding that “this represents a significant leap from the projected 69,819 lives saved if things remain the same”.

Shuaibu further expressed hope that with an ambitious scale-up of primary healthcare coverage, a total of 110,540 additional women could be saved over the course of 10 years reflecting improvements in health systems delivery – a 92 per cent improvement in the current projection, adding that the improved health indices is compared with a projected 9,561 lives saved if the healthcare delivery remains the same

Launches Basic Healthcare Provision Fund

While launching the revised implementation guidelines for the Basic Healthcare Provision Fund (BHCPF), Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire said that the sector is currently undergoing progressive transformation through the implementation of new health sector agenda approved by President Muhammadu Buhari.

He said that one of the innovative policies of government was the reinvigorated healthcare financing strategies. In addition, Ehanire said the health sector Next Level Agenda of the Buhari-led administration target to reduce health-related gaps in Sustainable Development Goals by 60 per cent is served by implementation of the expanded Primary healthcare service, mandatory health insurance and operationalisation of the National Emergency Medical Service & Ambulance System.

According to Ehanire, the health sector is presently funded with resources from two streams. The first being the BHCPF from at least one per cent of Consolidated Revenue Fund for healthcare to Nigerians as enshrined in the 2014 National Health Act.

Ehanire said the first release of the fund was in 2018, which marked the beginning of the journey towards Universal Health Coverage.

He said: “The revised guideline for administration, disbursement and monitoring of the BHCPF has been revised and approved by the National Council on Health, to reset implementation processes for better alignment with the National Health Act”.

FG Launches Health Promotion Policy

In a bid to improve the efficiency and quality of the healthcare sector, the federal government launched a revised National Health Promotion Policy Strategy Document (2020-2024). Part of the objective was to fast track efforts at reducing the burden of diseases facing Nigerians. Also presented to stakeholders was the Knowledge Management Guidelines for health promotion (2020-2024) which is expected to serve as a one-stop knowledge hub within the health sector.

The health promotion strategy spelt out how best to disseminate information on healthy practices across the country to achieve the goal of Universal Health Coverage. It aims at encouraging people to engage in healthy physical exercises and lifestyle that will help boost their health so as to reduce illnesses and frequent need for hospital treatment.

The health policy document also spelt out collaborative roles of various line ministries, like Education, Information, Environment, Women Affairs, Youth and Sports Development, Water Resources, Finance, Labour and Employment, Science and Technology, Ministry of Defence, and Ministry of Works, Housing and Urban Planning in ensuring the success of the programme.

Speaking at the formal presentation of the policy document in Abuja on Monday, Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire said the goal of the new policy is to empower the Nigerian populace to take timely action in disease prevention, improving their health and well-being as well as taking measures that ensure a healthy society. Ehanire said the new policy is to demonstrate that the Federal Ministry of Health is not only just concerned with treating illness, but attaining and sustaining good citizen health.

Ehanire said the implementation of the policy will be driven by National Primary Healthcare Development Agency (NPHCDA) and coordinated by the Health Promotion Division of the Department of Family Health at the Federal Ministry of Health.

Speaking on the progress made so far, the minister said there has been modest advances in few areas of health promotion programming, which include building capacity and an enabling policy environment, awareness creation, insititutionalisation at state level and baseline assessments, among others.

The media which is considered as a key stakeholder in health policy advocacy, was represented at the launch by the Chairman of the Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN) and Chairman of THISDAY Newspaper Group and Arise Television, Chief Nduka Obaigbena.

Obaigbena who was represented by the Editor of THISDAY Newspaper, Bolaji Adebiyi said the newspaper has been a notable voice in the advocacy for improved health conditions for Nigerians.

“We were in the forefront of the lobby to allocate the one percent of the Consolidated Revenue earning to the health care sector. We will continue to support efforts at the development of the health sector,” he said.

Other stakeholders, like WHO, Nigerian Governors Forum, National Orientation Agency and National Agency For Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) all pledged their readiness to collaborate in seeing to the actualisation of the policy goal of improved universal health coverage in the country.

Health Workers’ Strike

The year 2020 was also turbulent in terms of industrial unrest in the health sector. There were agitations by health workers’, especially those at the frontline of service delivery in the fight against COVID-19. Both the doctors, nurses and other workers demanded improved remuneration in form hazard allowance.

The unions in the health sector, under the auspices of the Joint Health Sector Union (JOHESU) embarked on a one week strike to compel government to approve new welfare package for them. The industrial dispute was quickly resolved after the federal government approved enhanced package as hazard allowance for the various categories of health workers. Also about 1,000 health workers were said to have been infected in Nigeria, according to the NCDC.

NACA Implement Empowerment Scheme for Women Living With HIV

National Action Against AIDS (NACA), is increasingly becoming a strong machinery for advocacy and Intervention to eradicate HIV in Nigeria. The agency has in recent times forged mutual alliance with persons living with HIV/AIDS to ensure effective management and control of the health challenge.

In response to the challenges faced by persons living with HIV/AIDS as a result of the COVID-19 disruptions, NACA came up with the initiative to assist women living with the disease to cope with the harsh economic situation in country.

Speaking at an event to marked the 2020 World AIDS Day in Abuja, the Director General of NACA, Dr. Gambo Aliyu said the agency will be implementing an economic empowerment programmes to assist vulnerable persons living with HIV in our communities who cannot earn a living. He said that COVID-19 pandemic has had a very negative impact on the progress made in tackling AIDS in the country.

According to him, NACA officials will go into various communities to reach out to needy persons living with HIV.

From all indications, the passing year is full of challenges, frustration and sad occurrences which most Nigerians would hate to remember.

Indeed, most Nigerians will be rolling out drums to celebrate the end of the year not because they are bouyant enough to do so but probably due to the several challenges that they went through of which COVID-19 pandemic was and continues to be a major part of.