Sometimes, when an outbreak of this kind happens we tend to stand off and wonder how the crazies bridged this zoonosis. We never imagine that its origin might be as close home as the Liberian scenes seen through our TVs. However, given that the available best evidence is that Ebola is a “naturally occuring” (endemic) illness among tropical fruit-eating Bats, we might want to be more worried and become even more proactive in dealing with the probability of a standalone outbreak in Nigeria…Yes! Even from Lagos.
For those who have lived in or frequented Lagos Island, particularly the circumference covering Obalende, Race Course, Marina, and Tinubu Square, you should have noted the huge population of the Lagos Fruit Bats. They droop off the high metal railings at Race Course, as well as the huge Almond trees at CMS besides the Lagos State Library building. As a teenager living on the Island, it was usual practice for me to observe the dusk flight of these Bats. At about 5pm everyday, the lower skies of the area is blanketed by thousands of flying animals, echolocating food aggregates.
In those years (between 1993 and 2000), I found it quite amusing that several of the kids who lived around Campos Square went Bat hunting every Saturday morning. Besides the horrifying thoughts of hunting “Vampires” was a standing curiosity about why anyone wanted to keep Bats as pets. Well, my curiosity ended with the knowledge that such flying meat ended up being slaughtered and skewered by these lads. I constantly saw hoards of kids armed with makeshift catapults headed for CMS bus stop to shoot down as many Bats as they could.
Now when I think back, I remember how over a conversation on Bat hunting, a few of my neighbours pointed me to a healed wound on the ankle of another boy who lived three houses away from mine. The boy later narrated how he got bitten by a huge Bat he had tried to capture after slinging it down from the tree. He actually nursed the wound for over a year. It started as a little scratch, but ended up digging deep into his flesh and caused him much pain. He never went Bat hunting again.
I have never taken those days seriously until this recent outbreak and its sneak into Nigeria. Some scientists have actually opined that the Ebola Virus might actually be present among several populations without necessarily causing an outbreak. This is a very possible case as blood samples taken from Sierra Leone between 2006-2008 were recently retested (they were originally tested for Lassa Fever) and approximately 9% were said to be harbouring the Ebola Virus. I am left to wonder how many Nigerians might be carrying such a virus under the radar, given the high consumption of “bush meat” in the country.
From the way the outbreaks have happened since 1976, there seems to be no pattern. Apart from the current outbreak, we have never witnessed systematic cross border infections where we can safely assume transmission via traveling human contacts. The occurrences have been random enough to prove that no country (particularly those where animals such as Bats are hunted and eaten) is immune from the outbreak of Ebola. So we need to be more active beyond containing the current situation. Our health system must test random blood samples of local indigenes to check for the presence of the virus, even though dormant.
Interestingly, there are two viruses which are named after cities in Nigeria – The Lagos Bat Virus and the Mokola Virus. In fact, one of the persons infected with the Mokola virus ended up being paralyzed, went into coma and died. This virus was isolated in Shrews, which are found almost everywhere in Nigeria. So we have contributed a fair share of animal to human transmission of viruses and we must not assume that none of this can be home grown. I actually believe all State Governments should pursue an active policy on health research into diseases that can likely occur given the peculiarities of their domain. My one cent.