Monday, August 17, 2015 1:21 pm
Deputy Head of Mission, African Union (AU) Support to Ebola Outbreak in West Africa, otherwise known as ASEOWA, Dr. Joshua Obasanya, has revealed how volunteers across Africa fought to stop the outbreak of Ebola Virus Disease, EVD, in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
ASEOWA was AU’s intervention body against the dreaded Ebola disease which ravaged some countries in West African. TheNEWS met Obasanya in Lagos last week during his first visit to the country since he led Nigerian volunteers for the ASEOWA mission last December. He said AU mobilised about 822 specialists for the mission and 198 of them were Nigerians, while others came from Ethiopia, Kenya, Congo and South Africa. The Nigerians returned from the mission in May this year.
Obasanya, who is a Director with the Federal Ministry of Health, said he was made Deputy Head of the mission “due to the feat we recorded when Ebola broke out in Nigeria last year between July and September. Don’t forget that I was part of the group of experts that effectively eradicated the Ebola disease in Nigeria. We did that successfully and that was the reason we played a prominent role in the fight against Ebola in the ASEOWA mission.”
According to Obasanya, who heads Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), the AU ensured that Nigerian volunteers were the first to land in Liberia because the organisation appreciated the speedy and effectively strategy used to put the disease under control when it broke out in Lagos and Port Harcourt, Rivers State. He narrated: “We were the first to arrive Liberia and I must confess to you we did a great job as soon as we landed. We did this with active collaboration with the host nations and other stakeholders such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), the US Center for Disease Control (CDC), the Chinese CDC, UNICEF and many other international organisations. A lot has been said about the causes of this dreaded disease, but I want to ask, why did Ebola sustain itself? Let me start with our experience in Nigeria.”
When the outbreak started, he revealed that what really helped as a people was the strong political leadership to fight Ebola. He added: “I’m happy to say that right from the Presidency, the leadership of the Federal Ministry of Health, the state governments and indeed the generality of Nigerians were ready to fight this. By the time we came down to Lagos, the city was ready for us with structures on ground to fight this disease. The same thing went for Rivers State; we got all the support needed. All resources were deployed with one voice. There was collaboration between all tiers of governments, the locals and the international Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs). You can see that all these made the difference in Nigeria and before we knew what was happening, we won the war. There was leadership and ownership at all levels. Everybody saw the war as he or her own to win. There was engagement of all stakeholders in Nigeria.”
Going back to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, initially there were, as he revealed, problems of leadership, ownership and more importantly coordinating effort to combat the disease as against the strong coordination in Nigeria. Obasanya said: “In these countries, we met a situation of too many uncoordinated players fighting Ebola. There was weak coordination of response. Every organisation came to fly its flags. When you want to fly your flag and I want to fly mine, there will be chaos, unlike in Nigeria where we had one big response. We did not fly our flag individually, it did not matter whether you were from academia or civil service, and we all deployed our expertise under one big response. We fought hard to achieve zero transmission. The community engagement later made huge impact in the three countries especially in Liberia. The community engagement was best in Liberia. This led to zero transmission of the disease. Community engagement was least in Guinea. We also had the problem of followership.”
With successive outbreaks, Obasanya added that they gained more experience. “Before now, we would ask ourselves, what is Ebola? In Northern Sierra Leone, where most of Nigerian specialists were deployed, we had survival rate of 66 per cent of a disease which everybody believes was a ‘death sentence’. For example, when 166 confirmed cases of Ebola were brought in and 105 survived, then we can happily say that there is a great faith in the containment process. This containment was proudly undertaken by our Nigerian and other AU volunteers. I must confess, we still have a lot to learn. But we are getting to know more about Ebola now than before. If you want to ask why American military was deployed to fight Ebola? You will see that everybody has one role or the other to take in the fight. Every hand must be on deck to fight this disease. There is a role for the engineers, community mobilisers, community elders and so on. It is not strictly with the medical personnel,” Obasanya said.
Asked why he and other Nigerians underwent a near death experience to fight Ebola despite knowing the implications, Obasanya said: “I think it is a calling going for this mission. Have you ever wondered what motivated us to do the job? If you ask me I don’t think I know the answer. Was it money? No, how much can you spend to buy a human life. The mission was not about money but I can say it was a calling. Even in Lagos, you will ask yourself, how did they do it? But what was paramount was that we overcame the fear and for me at a point I was confident to face the challenge and so many of us. Once you overcome fear then you will just want to go on with what you need to do. Mind you, we placed a lot of attention on our people not getting affected. What we did as soon as we landed was that we underwent training with the slogan ‘Keep Save, Keep serving because we noticed that death was everywhere in these places. You can only keep serving when you keep save.”
By the time the training was over, the team was ready to go. And Obasanya asked: “Tell me, how you would describe a mother in a household who had just two lovely daughters who were nurses but death took them away while helping to stop Ebola? It was scary and so sad. Or an old man who lost 11 members of his household at once to Ebola? You could not help but feel sad and full of emotion for such an old man. But I’m happy to say that Nigerians made a great difference in the mission with our calling and every Nigerian in the mission was so proud to be a Nigerian for taking part in a humanitarian and selfless service to stop the dreaded disease. We were the first to arrive, then the Ethiopians, the Kenya, the Congolese and the South Africans.”
On the remuneration package for the volunteers, Obasanya said the AU and the countries that contributed volunteers for the ASEOWA signed a Memorandum of Understanding, MOU, where it was stated that the countries would pay the salaries of their volunteers while the AU would take care of allowances. “I can tell you that everybody was paid,” he said.
Obasanya who hails from Ibadan, Oyo State had his A Level education at the CMS Grammar School in Lagos, read Medicine at Belarus Medical Institute and also attended Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam, Holland for his Masters.