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Officials Fear Ebola Will Spread Across Nigeria


The CDC, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is now on its highest possible alert level. This comes during the largest outbreak of Ebola in history. One-thousand-seven-hundred people are known to have contracted the disease in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia and now Nigeria.


Now, 1,700 is not a huge number in global terms, but most of those who have gotten the disease have died, which explains the spreading concern. Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf declared a state of emergency yesterday. That could include the suspension of some civil liberties. Schools and markets were already shut down. Nonessential government staff have been ordered to stay home.

GREENE: But let's turn now to Nigeria. There are only a few cases in that country, but all of them are in Lagos - that's the country's biggest city, with 21 million people. And because Ebola is highly contagious, Nigeria also has declared a state of emergency. Let's talk now with journalist Yinka Ibukun, who is in Lagos. Yinka, good morning.

YINKA IBUKUN: Good morning, Dave.

GREENE: So let's remember, if we can, how Ebola arrived in Nigeria. The government there says an airline passenger from Liberia carried the virus into the country. He arrived very sick. His name is Patrick Sawyer. Now, the government says he was isolated almost immediately. But that story seems to be changing now.

IBUKUN: Yes. He fell ill while on the plane, and the people who were hosting him took him basically from the airport to a hospital. But the truth is that at the beginning, the hospital didn't know that they were dealing with a possible case of Ebola. And they were actually treating him for malaria because a lot of the early symptoms of Ebola look a lot like malaria and other very common illnesses in this part of the world. So yes, there was a window period. And the Lagos State Government has said that during that window period, a few people were exposed without having the proper protection.

GREENE: So Yinka, the only people who are showing symptoms right now, that we know of in Nigeria, are medical personnel who were actually treating Patrick Sawyer.

IBUKUN: Yes, we do know that most, if not all of them, are hospital staff from the hospital where he was taken initially. A nurse who treated Patrick Sawyer died two days ago, and a doctor who treated him is also one of the five confirmed Ebola cases that are still alive.

GREENE: Now, Yinka, the big concern here in Lagos is that if this started to spread, it could spread very quickly because this is a large city with a lot of people in close quarters. Do health officials feel like they have control of this? Have they figured out the people who might have been in contact with Patrick Sawyer, and they're able to stop this from spreading?

IBUKUN: So yes, Lagos is a mega-city of more than 20 million people. That makes it quite different in how to handle it as it has been in rural areas where Ebola has thrived. And Lagos State Government has said that they're taking it very seriously, that they need to trace every single contact of Patrick Sawyer. And they brought that list down to 70 people. And they're now doing secondary contact tracing. So that's even more complex. They're trying to make a list of all the people who were in touch with everyone who was in touch with Patrick Sawyer.

GREENE: One of the problems has been, in other countries, that people don't immediately go to a hospital to seek medical attention if they think they have Ebola. Is that potentially a problem in Nigeria?

IBUKUN: Yes, very much so. There's a lot of mistrust about the ability of the government to take care of them. This is coming at a time when there's a national doctor strike.


IBUKUN: So hospitals haven't even been open. And then also, there's no cure, and there's no proof that people do survive, at least in Nigeria.

GREENE: Well, is the government trying to get the message out that you have to seek medical attention pretty quickly if you want a chance of survival?

IBUKUN: Exactly, so that's the main message of the government - and that if you do get help quickly, even though there is no cure, they're going to do everything possible to give you the supportive care, which means that they're going to basically keep you hydrated because Ebola kills you because you lose all your body fluids.

GREENE: So the messages that the government is sending, are they getting through? I mean, are people cooperating with the government?

IBUKUN: Well, the cities are very big, so there are some people who, as of today, have never heard Ebola. And there are some people who have heard about Ebola, but only through rumors, fake cures. And the Lagos State Government has said that the fight that it's facing in trying to medically help people, the task is just as big in terms of just getting the right information across so that more lives are saved.

GREENE: You say rumors, and you also used a very frightening term, fake cures, which makes me think that people think there are other ways, aside from going to the hospital, to cure this. What exactly are you talking about?

IBUKUN: Well, there's been rumors that kola nuts basically could boost your immune system.

GREENE: Kola nuts?

IBUKUN: Kola nuts, yes. I don't think you have it in America, but it's a very bitter nut. But the fact is that this is not scientifically proven. This is not treatment; it's just a nut. I mean, I spoke to someone yesterday who said he's chewing kola nuts for the first time in his life just because he thinks that could save him.

GREENE: I guess that gives you a sense of what the government is up against there.

IBUKUN: Exactly. They have a huge task in terms of just information.

GREENE: Yinka Ibukun is in Lagos, Nigeria. She's a journalist there. We appreciate you talking to us.

IBUKUN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.