Just as the eleventh case of Ebola was confirmed in Nigeria, President Goodluck Jonathan fired thousands of the country's resident doctors for being on strike during the medical emergency.
The Nigerian newspaper Premium Times reported that the Ministry of Health sent a memo to federal hospitals on Thursday ordering that residency training for doctors be terminated. The order affected some 16,000 of the country's doctors, who are now out of a job after receiving one month's pay. The move was prompted by the increasing number Ebola infections within Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, in order for hospital management to restore the medical care that is so urgently needed.
Isiaka Yusuf, a spokesperson for the Ministry, defended the move, saying that it would allow the Ministry to "make internal arrangements to get alternative doctors to cater for patients."
The fired doctors are members of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), which has been on strike since July 1st, demanding better working conditions and higher salaries.
"For the whole of July 2014, these doctors did not work yet government, owing to the emergency situation in our country, paid them the July salaries with allowances such as call duty allowance, teaching allowance, hazard allowance, etc., believing that this magnanimity of government would appeal to reason for NMA to call off the strike," Yusuf said in a statement. He called the strike "insensitive," and blamed the NMA for not being able to resolve the strike even though the government had offered to meet most of their demands.
Jubril Abdullahi, president of the Nigeria Association of Resident Doctors, claimed that the dismissal was illegal and told the Premium Times that the government's maneuver showed that it wasn't ready to negotiate.
Deaths from the virus have mainly occurred in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. Four people have died of Ebola in Nigeria so far, including Patrick Sawyer, the infected Liberian-American who brought the virus to Nigeria on July 20th in search of better care. He collapsed at the airport in Lagos and was brought to a city hospital, where he died five days later. A nurse who treated him also died of the illness.
Nigeria is Africa's biggest economy and has a better health system than most other West African countries, so one would expect that it would be relatively well equipped to treat and contain the virus. But local health experts are scrambling to find and isolate other infected people before the outbreak spreads throughout Lagos, a city of about 21 million people.
"Lagos is big, it's crowded. It would make in many ways a perfect environment for the virus to spread," Nigerian epidemiologist Chikwe Ihekweazu, who operates the website Nigeria Health Watch, told Reuters. "In the heart of Lagos, people live on top of each other, sharing bedrooms and toilets. In densely populated communities infection control becomes almost impossible to do well."
Larie Garrett, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, warned in Foreign Policy that if the plague spreads in Nigeria, it could spread around the world.
"You think airport security guards in Los Angeles can look a traveler in the eyes and see infection, blocking that jet passenger's entry into La-la-land?" she asked. "Wake up, fools."
John Campbell, a former US ambassador to Nigeria who is an adviser to the Council on Foreign Relations, spoke about the issue in a conference call with Garrett last week.
"In Lagos," he said, "the response to the arrival of a victim of Ebola who has since died was to put into effect immediately tracing operations to find everybody that he'd come into contact with, and also a quarantine. Now, right now, the Lagos picture looks good. The question has to be, how long will that last?"
The World Health Organization last week declared the Ebola outbreak a "public health emergency of international concern." As of Friday, WHO has reported that 1,145 have died of Ebola out of 2,127 confirmed, probable, and suspected cases. The UN agency warned on Thursday that the figures of cases and deaths are greatly underestimated, however.
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