Coronavirus: Health officials at Airports, Seaports apprehensive as disease spreads

Immigration and Health officials at Lagos Airport
Immigration and Health officials at Lagos Airport

The Nigeria Immigration Service and Port Health Services have expressed fears over the outbreak of Coronavirus in China.

The deadly disease, which broke out in the Asian nation sometime last month, has spread to eight countries including United States and Singapore, with over 800 people infected and 30 killed in the past few weeks.

Immigration and Port Health Services officials, said hundreds of the Chinese who left Nigeria for China to celebrate their annual festival – Lunar New Year – would start returning to Lagos, Abuja and other parts of the country from next week.

As such, they expressed fears of the possibility the Asians contracting the disease and bringing it into the country.

The immigration, port health and other airport officials, who spoke with Saturday PUNCH in separate interviews at Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt international airports, were also worried that Nigerians who frequent the Nigeria-China routes for business might import the killer virus into the country if care was not taken.

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Some officials of Port Health Services, a unit under the Ministry of Health, said the risk of importing the virus into Nigeria could not be completely ruled out since there was a window period of 10 days during which infected persons might not manifest any of the known symptoms of Coronavirus.

According to them, the thermal scanners installed at the airports are expected to alert them whenever any passenger with body heat exceeding 37 degrees passes under it.

The known symptoms of Coronavirus are fever, sneezing, difficulty in breathing and high temperature.

Although inbound passengers are physically monitored for any of these signs, Port Health Services officials said the virus incubation period might not make a carrier to manifest any of these signs, hence the possibility of missing out on some passengers.

A top official of the PHS said, “You know the way we do things in Nigeria, our own approach is always ‘fire brigade’. What we have here are what we were supplied during Ebola crisis by international donor agencies.

“My worry is that Monkeypox is also a problem in Nigeria. As of last month, we had 182 cases with nine confirmed death. Lagos State is even having the highest number with about 30 per cent. So my fear now is that on a daily basis we have Chinese coming into our country. Coronavirus broke out in December and people have been coming in. Some of them might have visited the cities where this virus is (in China) and they are already here in Nigeria. The scanners at the airports cannot capture them during the window period. The window period is about 10 days. During this period, our scanners may not detect any infected person because the symptoms are not there yet.”

A PHS official at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, said he was worried that health questionnaires were not being administered on China passengers.

He said this had increased the possibility of the disease coming into the country.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, “We have nose masks and kits here to protect ourselves. We also have sanitisers. My worry, however, is that there are no health questionnaires to administer on passengers from China. Even at Lagos airport where more Chinese passengers are recorded, there are no health questionnaires. The health questionnaires we have were designed for Ebola virus. We don’t take proactive actions in Nigeria until things happen and we will start running around.”

Our correspondents, who visited the screening point at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, on Thursday and Friday, observed that health questionnaires were not administered on passengers arriving from China via Ethiopia Airlines, Emirates, Qatar Airways and Egypt Air, among others.

An immigration official at the MMIA feared Nigerian traders who frequent the Nigeria-China route could be infected by Coronavirus.

He said, “Chinese are not the only people to give us concern, we have Nigerians who travel to China for business. They return on Emirates, Qatar Airways, Egypt Air.”

A top Immigration official at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport noted that Chinese nationals would start coming back to the country in large numbers soon.

He said although the airport authority was collaborating with other health institutions to track those suspected to have contracted the virus at entry points, he was worried it might not be watertight, especially when Chinese who travelled start returning to the country.

He said, “FAAN is working together with other health authorities to track anyone suspected to have the virus. They have installed equipment that captures the temperature of all visitors entering the airport. For now, there are no threats. This is because the Chinese are not coming in large numbers; they travelled out in large numbers recently for their Lunar New Year holiday. But very soon, they will start coming in. You know that their New Year is different from ours. This is why we need to be more careful because the risk will be higher.”

Another PHS official at the Lagos airport noted that the country had yet to acquire the reagent to diagnose the virus.

The official said, “Even for monkeypox cases that we are recording in the country, we have to take the specimen abroad for confirmation test. We are just making noises here, we don’t have anything on the ground.

“For now, there is no designated place in any of our airports for quarantine. The centre in Yaba has quarantine; the airport is supposed to have but we don’t.”

The health official said basic health facilities problems at the airport had been there for a long time.

The official said, “As I am talking to you, we have only one doctor in Lagos and we run more than one shift. Abuja has a doctor and I think there is one in Kano. Lagos airport needs more than one doctor. Sometimes when we have emergency at the night, we will be running around. We may have to call a doctor from the state government (hospital).”

The official, who also emphasised the importance of the health questionnaires on inbound passengers, said, “Between the time the virus gets to somebody and the time the virus starts manifesting, there is no how thermal camera can detect that. The person will not even show any sign of the virus during the incubation period.

“This is where the health form is important. With that form, we can know the passengers who visited certain places in China in December. Even such passengers would be called later for us to monitor whether they are down or not. We also have health management’ form and we have health workers’ form.”

Also, a top official of FAAN at the Port Harcourt International Airport expressed fear that the disease could spread to Nigeria, calling on the Federal Government to make further measures to ensure that it did not spread to the country.

The source said, “There is fear; one cannot rule out that. But it is now left for the Federal Government to know what to do concerning this. There has been this sensitisation that if you have high temperature or you are feeling cold or feverish, go to hospital to assess the situation and see if it is Coronavirus or Lassa fever.

Countries with confirmed cases of Coronavirus

According to an AFP report, about 10 counties have confirmed cases of Coronavirus.

Cases of the disease have been reported in Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and the United States as well as in the Chinese territories of Hong Kong and Macau.

China

As of Friday, more than 800 people have been infected across China, with 177 in serious condition. Authorities were also examining 1,072 suspected case.

Officials also confirmed the second virus death outside the Wuhan region, saying a patient died in Heilongjiang province, 2,000km away.

The city of Macau, a gambling hub hugely popular with mainland tourists, has confirmed two cases. The first was a 52-year-old businesswoman from Wuhan who arrived in Macau by high-speed rail on Sunday, via the neighbouring city of Zhuhai.

Japan

As of Thursday, two people tested positive in Hong Kong. Both had visited Wuhan in recent days and are being treated in isolation wards in the hospital.

Japan’s health authorities confirmed a second case on Friday, Kyodo news agency reported, saying the patient was a man in his 40s who was originally from Wuhan and on a trip to Japan.

On January 16, Japan’s health ministry said they had its first case – a man who had visited Wuhan and was hospitalised on January 10, four days after his return to Japan.

Singapore

Singapore on Friday announced two more confirmed cases of the new SARS-like virus, bringing the total number to three.

The health ministry confirmed the first case Thursday – a 66-year-old man who arrived from Wuhan with his 37-year-old son, who also tested positive for coronavirus.

Both had arrived in Singapore on Monday.

The third confirmed case is a 52-year-old Wuhan woman, who arrived in the city-state on Tuesday and was admitted to hospital the following day.

South Korea

South Korea confirmed on Friday its second case of the virus.

The health ministry said a South Korean man in his 50s started experiencing symptoms while working in Wuhan on January 10. He was tested on his return earlier this week, and the virus was confirmed.

The country reported its first case on January 20 — a 35-year-old woman who flew in from Wuhan.

Taiwan

On January 22, authorities confirmed the first case on the self-ruled island of Taiwan — a Taiwanese woman in her fifties, living in Wuhan, who returned to the island on Monday with symptoms including fever, coughing and a sore throat.

Thailand

Thailand has detected four cases so far — three Chinese nationals from Wuhan and a 73-year-old Thai woman who came back from the Chinese city this month.

Two of the Chinese patients were treated, cured and have travelled back to their country, the Thai health ministry said this week.

United States

On January 21, the United States announced its first case – a man in his 30s living near Seattle. Officials say he is in a good condition and approached authorities himself after reading about the virus in news reports.

Vietnam

Vietnam confirmed two cases of the virus on Thursday. An infected man from Wuhan travelled to Ho Chi Minh City earlier this month and passed the virus onto his son.

Both are being treated hospital and are stable, Vietnam health officials said.

WHO advises countries to prepare for containment and surveillance

Meanwhile, the WHO has advised all countries to prepare for containment, including active surveillance, early detection, isolation and case management, contact tracing and prevention of onward spread of Coronavirus.

The WHO Emergency Committee gave the advice on after two days meeting held in Geneva to deliberate whether coronavirus was a Public Health Emergency of International Concern or not.

In a statement, the UN health agency, declared that Novel Coronavirus was not yet an official PHEIC but said countries should expect that further international exportation of cases might appear in any country.

The statement said, “Countries should place particular emphasis on reducing human infection, prevention of secondary transmission and international spread.

“They should also place emphasis on contributing to the international response though multi-sectoral communication and collaboration and active participation in increasing knowledge on the virus and the disease, as well as advancing research.’’

Meanwhile, the British government w as expected to hold an emergency response meeting on Friday over the deadly virus.

A government spokesman said Britain was “well prepared” to deal with the emerging threat, stressing that “there remain no confirmed cases” in the country to date.

Representatives of the ministries of transport, home affairs, foreign affairs, education, health and devolved nations will attend the special COBRA meeting, Downing Street said.

Public Health England said Friday that 14 people in Britain had been tested for the coronavirus to date, with five given the all-clear and nine more awaiting their test results.

UK health authorities have introduced “enhanced monitoring” for the three weekly flights from Wuhan – the central China city from where the virus spread – to London’s Heathrow airport.

Meanwhile in Nigeria the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority and the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria have put all airline operators, Air Navigation Service Providers and Aerodrome Operators on the alert over the outbreak of coronavirus.

The National Centre for Disease Control said there was no specific cause for the deadly coronavirus yet but added that each of the symptoms could be treated separately for the carriers of the virus to survive.

A statement from the centre said, “There is no specific treatment for disease caused by the novel coronavirus yet. However, many of the symptoms can be treated. Therefore, treatment is based on the patient’s clinical condition. In addition, supportive care for infected persons can be highly effective.”

The NCDC added that travellers from Nigeria to Wuhan must avoid contact with sick people, animals (alive or dead), and animal markets.

It added, “Travellers from Wuhan to Nigeria may be asked questions upon arrival by the PHS unit at points of entry about symptoms of illness and travel history, and are advised to report immediately to NCDC, if they feel ill after a trip to Wuhan.”

Health ministry reacts

When asked why questionnaires were not provided for passengers arriving from China, the Deputy Director, Press, at the ministry, Mrs Enefaa Bob-Manuel, told one of our correspondents who visited the Federal Ministry of Health secretariat in Abuja on Friday that the officer in charge of the PHS would speak on operations of health officers at the various entry points after getting permission from the ministry.

She promised to notify our correspondent as soon at the permission was given. However, as of the time of filing this report, our correspondent had yet to be notified.

THE PUNCH reported on January 15 that the NCDC Laboratory Network Advisor, Mrs Celestina Obiekea, told one of our correspondents who visited the National Reference Laboratory in Gaduwa in Abuja that the country had ordered reagent to develop the capacity to test samples.

She added that designated laboratories, including the National Reference Laboratory in Abuja, had the capacity to deal with coronavirus.

When asked on Friday if the national laboratory had taken delivery of the reagent, she told our correspondent that the laboratory had yet to take delivery of the chemical. She however said the absence of the item did not call for panic, despite the spread of the disease in some parts of the world.

The NCDC Laboratory Network Advisor said, “We have not received the shipment of the virus reagent. But we hope to sort it out by next week. But the fact that we have not taken its delivery does not call for any panic. There is no cause for alarm.”

NMA allays fears

Also on Friday, the President of the Nigeria Medical Association, Dr Francis Faduyile, allayed the fear that there could be a breach at the nation’s entry points, especially if the PHS were not provided questionnaires for passengers from China.

He said, “Since the WHO has not declared coronavirus as a global emergency, it might be difficult for us to quarantine people arriving from China. What they do now generally (at the entry points) is to check body temperature. It is just for us to be aware (of anyone coming with coronavirus symptoms). It is not as if those who contact the virus will die.

“It is meant to have early treatment. We need to be on the lookout. We don’t need to quarantine until the WHO declares an emergency on it. It is still in the right process for us to do what we are doing now.”

In an earlier interview with one of our correspondents, the NMA boss urged the government to treat coronavirus like Ebola virus in term of readiness and resources to fight it.

Faduyile said, “Coronavirus is one of the highly contagious viral illnesses we have seen. We had a form of the virus called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (in 2002) and now that the world has become a global village, it has made it easy to transmit the virus.

“It should be treated like Ebola because it is also highly infectious. They are zoonotic diseases that affect animals and are transmitted to human beings. Also in that category is Lassa fever.

“We have seen in the recent time the case of Ebola virus in Africa with all immigrants subjected to test at port of entry. Anyone with high temperature should be subjected to tests to know the cause of their body temperature.”

Meanwhile, on Thursday and Friday, health officials screened passengers who arrived at the MMIA aboard Ethiopian, Emirates, Qatar and Etihad Airways.

However, there was no passenger with a temperature among them and they were allowed in.

Health officials and immigration officers at the airport wore nose masks to prevent contracting the dreaded virus.

Some of the passengers, who spoke to Saturday PUNCH, lauded the effort to screen those coming into the country.

Some Indians aboard the aircraft said the virus was not in their country but commended the efforts of the Nigerian officials to prevent the spread of the virus to the country.

One of the Indians, Pawan Guppa, said, “The virus you are talking about is not in India. It is in China. India has no problem with it.

“Nigeria is doing a good job with the screening of passengers and it is a good one.”

Another passenger, Sai Arjun, said screening passengers at entry points would go a long way in preventing the virus from coming to Nigeria.

Nigeria at risk as 120,000 Chinese nationals visit annually

There are also fears that Nigerian visitors to Chinese cities may also contract the disease and spread it to others on arrival in the country if stringent measures are not taken at the airports and other border points.

Official figures obtained on Friday by Saturday PUNCH indicated that about 120,000 Chinese nationals visit Nigeria annually mainly to explore business and other economic opportunities in agriculture, solid mineral exploration and mining.

According to the President, China Chambers of Commerce in Nigeria, Mr Ye Shuijin, 160 Chinese firms operating in the country had employed over 200,000 Nigerians, many of whom are sent to China for training and seminars from time to time.

Also, no fewer than 30,000 Nigerians travel to different Chinese cities every year for business or tourism.

Findings also reveal that about 60,000 Chinese nationals are living in different cities in Nigeria. Many of them also travel to their home country regularly during festive seasons such as the Spring Festival holding on Saturday (today).

China, according to reports, went into lockdown on Friday after authorities and business owners scrambled to shut tourist attractions and public transport systems as part of efforts to stop the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

Major festivities all over the country have been cancelled, including those at Beijing’s Forbidden City, a major tourist destination, and fairs and carnivals in Beijing and Hong Kong.

China allocates RMB 1 billion to fight the virus

China is allocating RMB 1 billion ($144m) to combat coronavirus outbreak.

A statement released by the Ministry of Finance on Thursday said the money would “support virus control work in Hubei province,” where Wuhan is located.

It did not specify how the funds would be spent.

Meanwhile, passenger screening, particularly for inbound travellers, was tightened up by FAAN, immigration and PHS officials, at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport on Friday.

Also, the Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, announced on Friday via his Twitter handle that the Federal Government had received six new aircraft to be deployed at the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology, Zaria, Kaduna State.

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