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Nigeria's Polio Eradication Campaign Helped Prevent Ebola Epidemic

  • Carol Pearson

Nigeria has just become polio free for the first time in the country's history. It took diligent work, careful negotiations, commitment and thousands of volunteers. And all that effort helped save the country from an Ebola epidemic.

Last July, Patrick Sawyer boarded a plane from Liberia to Nigeria. It was evident that he was sick while on the plane, and once he arrived at the international airport in Lagos, he collapsed. At the time, all the public hospitals were closed so Sawyer was taken to a private hospital, where he died. Even though he passed the virus to almost two dozen other people and eight of them died, Nigeria was spared an Ebola epidemic.

"It was a combination of fortunate circumstances and a little bit of preparedness on our side." Oyewale Tomori heads the Nigerian Academy of Science and is Chair of the Committee to Eradicate Polio.

He says because Sawyer was already very sick when he arrived in Lagos and did not go to a public hospital, few people had close contact with him.

Dr. Mohammed Pate, a former Nigerian health official who is now at Duke University in the U.S., agrees that quick action combined with luck prevented a larger outbreak.

"The case went to a good hospital," he said, "where the provider, Dr. Ameyo Adadevoh, was a very strong leader... raised the alert and sent out information to look for cases to contact."

This is when Nigeria's existing surveillance system for polio came into play. Thousands of people, including volunteers, used the system to find those who might have been exposed to Ebola. They were then isolated, and the contact list was updated regularly.

Every visitor to Nigeria was scanned for a fever, as were those who left the country. Because of work with polio, Tomori says Nigeria already had a laboratory where technicians could quickly diagnose the Ebola virus.

"I think the fact that we had what we call an emergency operations center for polio," he said, "It was then easy to deploy that to solve the problem with Ebola."

Now, with new cases of Ebola in neighboring Liberia, the Nigerian government is again warning people to be on high alert, to practice good hygiene, wash their hands frequently and avoid close contact with anyone who is sick.