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‘ECOWAS centre will improve Nigeria’s public health investments’

Prof. Abdulsalami Nasidi is the Acting Executive Director of the ECOWAS Regional Centre for Surveillance and Disease Control (RCDC), and also the National Coordinator, Nigeria…

Prof. Abdulsalami Nasidi is the Acting Executive Director of the ECOWAS Regional Centre for Surveillance and Disease Control (RCDC), and also the National Coordinator, Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). In this interview, he speaks on the country’s surveillance and response to disease outbreaks, emerging diseases, and the siting of the RCDC in Nigeria, among others. Read excerpts:

What is the level of Nigeria’s preparedness in responding to emerging and remerging diseases?
We decided to improve our level of preparedness after the pandemic flu and the Ebola outbreak, what we call post pandemic preparedness plan to keep Nigeria at the level of being prepared to at least respond quickly, and a good example is the Lassa fever emergency.
Immediately Lassa fever came, we used all we had in fighting it and all the other emergencies – even influenza, polio and Ebola. So to some extent we have the minimum things required to be prepared, but of course we have many challenges and we need more to be perfect.

Is Nigeria at risk of the Zika virus?
Yes. Every country in the African continent is at risk, because in the last two months, two countries recorded infections by the virus – they are Guinea Bissau and Carpe Verde. So this means that West Africa in particular is at highest risk.

What is the centre doing to strengthen surveillance against diseases?
First and foremost, we are increasing the capacity of the manpower doing the surveillance; training them, putting them into systems and improving our ties with the state epidemiologists.
We now have an annual disease surveillance network officers’ meeting which is also one of the mechanisms to really improve it.
We are also improving our reporting system on weekly and monthly bases.
We have also developed some software for disease reporting and notification. We have collaborated with the private sector and health facilities that were not reporting before; they are now reporting and doing it well.So this is contributing to improving disease surveillance in the country.

Tell us about the NCDC reference lab in Gadua, Abuja. How will it impact on the lives of Nigerians?
The reference laboratory in Gadua was established for polio immunization but has now been expanded. It will provide us with the opportunity to diagnose quickly, whatever is the cause of any health or disease emergency.
 It will help us to characterize the cause – either virus or bacteria – and know what we can use it for. For instance, characterize it and use it to develop reagents and vaccines.
It will also empower us to provide training sites for Nigerian laboratorists and also extend to West African laboratorists.
It will also help us to network all laboratory activities in the country, in the concept of emergency and incident management system.
That means if you have, let say any cholera outbreak in Ogbadibo Local Government of Benue State or Ohazara Local Government of Ebonyi State, you should be able to get it reported to the disease surveillance unit and the laboratory will go into action. At the same time the incident management will start working, that is if it is confirmed it is cholera, or if it is Ebola, you don’t have to wait.
You know, before, they had to wait and keep waiting for the laboratory report and as you are waiting that bacteria or virus is gaining ground.
In a nutshell, the laboratory is empowering us to be well ahead of the pathogen and to respond faster.
The laboratory will be used by both the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and the ECOWAS Regional Centre for Surveillance and Disease Control.

The ECOWAS Regional Centre for Surveillance and Disease Control started operations in Nigeria recently, how is it going to benefit the country?
It is going to bring a lot of investments into our public health. Because we have partners, international private companies that want to invest in public health in order to strengthen our health system.
So it will really change and make our health system stronger and resilient. It will also provide employment for Nigerians.
It will provide more laboratory capacity and training at a higher level and also make disease detection, prevention and response within the whole region much better.
For example,if there is outbreak of Zika in Gambia we will not be sleeping here or waiting. We shall use this as a base to form regional rapid response teams. So it wouldn’t be a case of there is a fire in Sierra Leone, and Liberia is waiting. No, Liberia must form a team, Gambia must form a team and Guinea, because they are all surrounded, and quickly go there and start fighting it as if it is in their country.
Finally, it will afford us opportunity to network everything we are doing, like networking our laboratory services, and diseases surveillance in the region, and then coordinate our response activities.
The siting of the RCDC here is an honour to Nigeria because we are given this on the basis of our achievements during the Ebola outbreak and others like the Avian flu which we fought very well.
Similarly, it is also very rare that they will site such a centre in a country and then allow a national of that country to head it. So by appointing me, it is like the 15 heads of state of the sub-region have reposed confidence in me and honoured me to do this job. They could have sent someone from a francophone country to come here and run it.
So it is also recognition of my personal role in the Ebola and other pandemic flu control efforts. You know, they honoured us for that job and I got a World Health Organization (WHO) honour,too, so it is recognition for both the country and me with my engagement as the head.

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