Health officials have been warning for weeks now that the Ebola epidemic currently sweeping across West Africa is spiraling out of control. However, confirmation of a new case of the virus in Lagos, Nigeria — Africa’s most populous city— threatens to transform the already alarming regional crisis into a much broader one. Nigerian authorities shut and quarantined a hospital on Monday where an infected man had died after traveling from Liberia last week.
Health officials in Nigeria confirmed that it was the country’s first ever documented case of the virus and that the deceased, Patrick Sawyer, a consultant for Liberia’s Finance Ministry, was quarantined upon arrival in Lagos. Passengers on his flight who may have been exposed to the virus are currently being traced by the government though as many as 35 may remain at large. While Sawyer’s contacts within Nigeria remain limited, his case has nonetheless raised fears that the disease’s arrival in one of the world’s most populous countries (and Africa’s largest) poses a larger threat — particularly given the limitations of Nigeria’s healthcare system.
VISUAL CONTEXT: Ebola cases and deaths in Africa
The countries Ebola has been reported in thus far — Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia— similarly have poor healthcare infrastructure. However, Nigeria’s high population density and the virus’ arrival to an urban center of 21 million with daily international flights places the crisis in the worst possible context when it comes to efforts to contain the outbreak. The development has raised alarm in the region, with one major West African airline announcing on Tuesday that it will stop flying to Liberia and Sierra Leone, following in the footsteps on Nigeria’s largest airline Arik Air, which announced a similar plan on Monday.
Liberia has even gone so far as to suspend all football activities in the country because of the risk of infection through the contact sport. This just a day after closing most of its border crossings and implementing strict new health measures. While Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has decided the airport will remain open, all travelers coming in and out of the country will be tested for the virus. Nigeria has also issued a “red alert” on all of its airports, seaports, and land borders.
Stepped up vigilance at borders and other points of entry is, of course, an important component to staunching the spread of the epidemic. The problem is that Ebola’s initial symptoms are so similar to other, less threatening illnesses like the flu that it can often be difficult to identify by screeners. Though contracting Ebola is more difficult than catching the flu since it is spread through contact with bodily fluids, nearly 100 health workers have nonetheless been infected, despite precautionary measures. The exposure of travelers into Nigeria to the virus is ringing alarm bells for this reason. With an ongoing strike by Nigerian healthcare workers taking place in the background, the conditions around this distressing extension of the epidemic paints a very bleak picture indeed.