Ebola, ZMapp and Public Diplomacy

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By Oke Epia

Amina Kolawole (not real name) earned a decent living as a nurse in a thriving private medical centre in Lagos. That was before Liberian Diplomat, Patrick Sawyer checked into the health facility bearing the deadly Ebola virus ravaging his country and consequently, importing it into Nigeria. Sawyer later died of the disease. As at time of writing this, two Nigerians who had primary contact with him, have gone his way. And with almost ten others testing positive to the virus so far, panic has spread like wild fire among the populace amidst a frenzied response from government.

Scientists have yet to neither find a cure for the virus nor a vaccine for its prevention. The world Health Organisation (WHO) has revved up alert levels on the pandemic, declaring it a global health emergency while noting that close to 2000 infected cases have been recorded with over half becoming eventual fatalities. The West African countries of Guinea (from where the disease resurged early this year), Sierra Leone and Liberia have been worst hit by the current outbreak.

With a population of 170 million people, an ill equipped health sector compounded currently by a nationwide strike by medical doctors, and a porous border, an Ebola epidemic in Nigeria can spell doom for Africa and endanger the rest of humanity. Alarmed by this gloomy prospect, the federal government has rightfully declared a state of emergency with a sum of 1.9billion naira (about 11.6million US dollars) voted to contain a further spread of the disease. But what is particularly of interest is the reported denial of a request by Nigerian health authorities to the United States to allow the country access to Zmapp, an experimental drug believed to be useful in combating the deadly virus, into the country.

The drug manufactured by a private pharmaceutical company in San Diego, USA, has been administered on two Americans (though it has not been tested for safety in humans) who contracted the virus in West Africa and were flown home in strictly sequestered conditions. Both patients have reportedly shown improvement though there have been no scientific confirmation that it’s as a result of the drug. The US Centre for Disease Control would later issue a statement to the effect that there were no available doses of the drug in apparent reaction to the request from Nigeria.

But in a matter of days, the supposedly scarce drug was made available for administration on a 75 years old Spanish priest who contracted the deadly virus and was promptly evacuated from Liberia. Although he would later die in a Madrid hospital where he had been quarantined, reports say Zmapp doses were provided for the Spaniard at the request of his country’s health authorities. According to officials, the test medication was provided under a Spanish law allowing unauthorised medication on patients at the risk of death but cannot be saved through any licensed treatment. [eap_ad_1] Spurning the risks of the unconfirmed status of Zmapp, Liberia too got the favoured Spanish treatment as the drug was made available to the disease- ravaged country during the week. Reports say the US government simply responded to a request from the country’s President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf by facilitating contact with the drug manufacturer. Amidst ethical concerns for using a drug not yet fully tested and certified fit for human consumption, the WHO during the week allowed the substance to be administered on consenting sufferers. In any case, as the Liberian Information Minister, Lewis Brown said as quoted in a BBC report, “the alternative for not testing this is death, a certain death.”

It is remarkable that the manufacturers of Zmapp have said they are providing the drug to Liberia at no cost. But it is no secret that the US government has substantially invested in the process of its production at least with a $10million contribution for clinical trials. By implication, Liberia by receiving the drug free of charge is benefitting indirectly from US government subsidy. So the question some commentators have asked is why is Nigeria being denied access to the medication if it can be made available to her West African neighbour whose citizen incidentally, is the first offender in bringing the country into the Ebola ring? Already the ethical question hanging over usage of the untested Zmapp has been addressed by the WHO at least temporarily. So could it be that a commercial consideration is a factor in not allowing the drug in Nigeria even though it is not known that the world’s biggest concentration of black people requested it for free?