The Ebola virus continues to spread in West Africa. As national and international health organizations intensify their fight against the disease, people in big cities are starting to fear a worst case scenario.
Lagos: Africa's largest city, a metropolis of more than 20 million people. West Africa's economic hub. This megacity can not be thrown off balance by the recent Ebola outbreak. Or can it?
“One should be in a panic mood,” says Chris Obiake, a paralegal in Lagos. He is one of the innumerable pedestrians passing newspaper stands in Lagos every morning. The headlines scream: 'Ebola is killing more and more people.' Obiake is clearly worried, “given the wide spread of the disease in the West African region”, he told a Reuters reporter,”coupled with the fact that doctors are on strike”.
The fact that many doctors employed at public hospitals have been on strike since July 1 has not helped to put minds at rest in Lagos where the first Ebola case was reported last week. A Liberian man who had flown into the country died shortly afterwards. The disease is contagious, the incubation period can last up to three weeks and diagnosis is difficult: A recipe for disaster for the millions commuting in crammed mini-buses every day.
It's not the flu
“Right now, the situation is under control”, says Professor Sunday Omilabu, a virologist at Lagos University Hospital. “What we are doing is to monitor the contacts from the airport, contacts in the hospital where the patient was hospitalized as well as those that were with him on the flight.” Overall, 69 people have been identified. Omilabu's laboratory is one of two where their samples are being checked. Two people have been isolated because of possible Ebola symptoms.
Since Ebola is not airborne, it is not as contagious as influenza. People can only get infected through direct contact with body fluids. But what would happen if not only one or two, but thousands of people in Lagos acquired the virus?
Geared up for more cases?
“The state ministry of health has already identified a number of buildings that are prepared for isolation in case more people are afflicted”, Omilabu says. "So we are working towards that." The World Health Organization (WHO) has sent two experts from Geneva to support Omilabu's team. The WHO has announced that it will deploy several hundred medical personnel under a new emergency plan. The organization plans on spending 100 million US-dollars (75 million euros) to tackle the current epidemic.
Yet, these efforts will likely be focused on Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, the three countries where the virus has done the most harm. For now, Nigeria has not been added to the list of countriesfor which authorities in the US, France and Germany have issued travel warnings.
In need of equipment
Moreover, it may take time for international support to arrive in Lagos. Omilabu hopes that the WHO will provide plastic suits for doctors and nurses - protective equipment that is in short supply in many hospitals.
For his rapidly diminishing supplies of ebola early detection agents, Omilabu is now counting on the Hamburg Tropical Medical Institute in Germany with which he has collaborated for more than 20 years.
He says his laboratory is waiting for a batch to arrive soon which his colleagues in Hamburg have air-freighted to Lagos. Next week, he adds, he also expects another parcel, hoping that no more cases of ebola will occur in the meantime.