COVID-19: Nigeria Gropes In The Dark With Low Testing Rates

Ima Akpabio called the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) hotline to report her exposure to foreigners from an at risk country in respect of the coronavirus pandemic.

She took the necessary social distancing precautions and began working remotely.

“I knew I had been exposed and was a risk to those around me. I tried my best to keep calm while doing my part,” Akpabio said.

When calling the hotline numbers, she heard a dial tone, which made her anxious.

Although she had not experienced any symptoms, she had been alerted that the two foreigners she contacted were now very sick in their home countries.

Since calling the NCDC was not working, she drove to the hospital to get tested because she knew that if she was infected, her asymptomatic condition could be a threat to others.

But upon arrival at NCDC she was turned away, Akpabio told HumAngle.

“According to the health professionals, there were no test kits available at any hospital and the only testing centre was in Gwagwalada Area Council in the outskirts of Abuja.”

Akpabio expressed disappointment with the process of reporting a possible case.

“When they (the foreigners ) sent me that video saying they were sick, I got scared.

“I don’t want to panic but we were in close contact and I can’t reach anyone on the hotline to guide me on that. I’ll self isolate but what else can I do other than that?”

While self isolation for 14 days is necessary, it does not explain what happens if someone carrying the virus shows no symptoms, or if the person is not showing enough of the symptoms to cause alarm.

What makes the coronavirus difficult to monitor is that infected persons do not always show symptoms immediately.

Symptoms of the virus, such as coughing, fever or respiratory difficulty can take up to 14 days to manifest from the time of infection.

This means that someone can come in contact with a person who has the virus but shows no visible signs that present a risk.

COVID-19 can incubate in the body without any identifier, this is called an asymptomatic response.

Nigeria currently tests a few hundreds for a population of over 200 million. As at March 28, the NCDC had only tested 262 suspected cases.

The numbers have since doubled but are still insignificant compared to the population. This is why the government has been seeking other ways to curb the spread of the virus infection, including shutting down the country.

According to NCDC’s Daily Situation Report, Nigeria is able to test 1,500 people a day.

Testing packs have been sent to the Northern region to aid 21 tertiary institutions and federal medical centres, the agency said.

The agency has also set up nine laboratories across the country and constituted 15 rapid response teams to deal with cases as they arise.

Currently, the country has recorded 238 confirmed cases from 13 states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) with five deaths and 35 recoveries. The majority of cases are in Lagos (120) and the FCT (48).

Although the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that testing is essential to curbing the spread of COVID-19, the shortage of testing kits and adequate medical supplies is a global challenge.

To address the shortage, the private sector and other organizations have also stepped in to aid Federal Government efforts.

For instance, Bauchi State, which has recorded six cases, plans to set up a centre to reduce the time and distance covered in sending specimens to Abuja for confirmation.

A private company, 54gene is currently steering the launch of the Nigeria COVID-19 Testing Fund. The funding will allow the purchase of testing instruments, biosafety materials, and training of health professionals.

The hope is to expand testing up to 5,000 per day. Dr. Abasi Ene-Obong, 54gene’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO), said the goal was to make public health a priorty.

He stressed the need for institutions to join in partnership to form a “multi-stakeholder, co-ordinated plan, that could be implemented almost immediately.

Ene-obong’s hope is to meet the challenge of providing “the requisite infrastructure to ensure that testing can be conducted at scale.”

A recent donation from Chinese business mogul Jack Ma has allowed Nigeria to increase testing. His donation delivered test kits, masks and face shields to countries in Africa.

Nigeria is not the only country with a record of refusing possible cases.

Recently, a Nigerian-American, Bassey Offiong, was a student of Chemical Engineering at Western Michigan University when he contracted the virus.

Offiong was refused testing multiple times, despite showing symptoms. No reason was given why the-25-year-old was denied a life saving test.

Meanwhile, countries, such as South Korea, responded quickly and efficiently to the spread of the coronavirus. The government, along with encouraging healthy individual habits, offered rapid drive through testing to all its citizens.

Early in March, South Korea tested 20,000 people a day which is about 1 in 170 individuals.

Although the country’s population is 50 million, the response of the government was swift.

As of April 2, South Africa had conducted 47,000 tests. The country can conduct up to 5,000 tests a day and hopes to increase to 36,000 tests per day.

Zweli Mkhize, The Health Minister, said that South Africa needed to “test hundreds of thousands of the population to get a better picture” of the rate of the virus infection.

The U.K. has conducted over 150,000 tests with the ability to test up to 8,000 people a day, although health experts claim that it had facilities to test 100,000 people per day.

Iceland tested 100 per cent of its small population and a half of those who tested positive were asymptomatic.

In the weeks to come, if cases like Akpabio’s go unchecked, Nigeria might have to brace itself for a spread of infection that might be difficult to deal with.

Akpabio made the point when she said, “There are so many Nigerians who have been exposed to foreigners who came to the country. What do we do about this issue?”

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