By Kai Kupferschmidt | From AAAS
After Oyewale Tomori finished his talk on Ebola here at theInternational Meeting on Emerging Diseases and Surveillance, there was stunned silence. Tomori, the president of the Nigerian Academy of Science, used his plenary to deliver a scathing critique of how African countries have handled the threat of Ebola and how corruption is hampering efforts to improve health. Aid money often simply disappears, Tomori charged, “and we are left underdeveloped, totally and completely unprepared to tackle emerging pathogens.”
Trained as a veterinarian, Tomori was the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) regional virologist for the African region in 1995 during the Ebola outbreak in Kikwit in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). ScienceInsider sat down with him at the meeting in Vienna; questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: You said in your talk that Ebola was “swimming in an ocean of national apathy, denial, and unpreparedness.” What did you mean?
A: We were totally unprepared. After the first cases occurred in West Africa, it took almost 3 months for WHO to know. When the first patient came to Sierra Leone and died, his son brought him back to Guinea and as far as Sierra Leone was concerned, it was Guinea’s problem. People abandoned their duty, they denied the problem, and when it became a big problem they became incapable of handling it.
This is not the first time Ebola has appeared in Africa. There have been more than 20 outbreaks since 1976. Not one of them has been declared a global problem. Of course, circumstances are different this time. But if we had been prepared, if we had learned from the past, we wouldn’t be where we are today.
Q: You seem angry.
A: Yes, I am, because I know Africa has the capacity and the capability to solve most of her problems, but Africa will not enable her human resources to perform effectively and efficiently. African leaders have little or no respect for their experts and would rather act on advice from external sources. In the end, they become the experts on Africa’s problems, not the Africans. This is why I am angry with Africa.
We have seen so many Ebola cases before, in the DRC, in Sudan, in Gabon. … Ebola is Africa’s problem. We should have put something in place. I remember in 1995, when we had the Kikwit epidemic, at the end we sat down at a table and discussed what we should do. There was a laboratory in Kinshasa built by the French; it was almost completed, but then abandoned. We had raised almost $2 million at the time. And we said: “Why not take a bit of that money and complete this lab and maintain it? Then at least when we have issues like this we can do quick testing.” But nothing happened. The carcass is still there. Each time I pass the place, I think: “What a waste.”
Q: But your own country seems to have been prepared. Nigeria managed to contain the virus after it was carried to Lagos by a traveler in July. There were only 19 infections, and WHO called the containment of the virus “a spectacular success story.“
A: We were not prepared, we were lucky. Patrick Sawyer was already sick when he arrived, so he went straight to the hospital. And because our doctors were on strike, the public hospitals were not open, so he went to a private hospital. If Sawyer had gone into a public hospital, we would have had a bigger problem.
But within 2 to 3 days of Sawyer coming in, we knew it was Ebola from laboratory tests done in two of our university laboratories, and then action was taken. I praise Nigeria for that. We had this emergency center from the polio network and we brought people in and traced almost 1000 contacts. This was not passive tracing; people went to contacts’ homes on a daily basis.
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