Ebola screening for Nigeria's Mecca pilgrims
19 September 2014, 09:31
Lagos - With some 76 000 Nigerian Muslims expected this year at the hajj in Saudi Arabia, organisation was always going to be a major logistical undertaking.
But after more than 2 600 deaths from Ebola in West Africa this year, including eight in Nigeria, the authorities have had to put in extra security measures to allay fears about its possible spread outside the region.
Nigeria is the only country of the five in the region affected by the mass outbreak of haemorrhagic fever that has been given permission to send its pilgrims to Mecca for the world's largest gathering of Muslims.
At the hajj cargo terminal at Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos and at other departure points across the country, that means a three-tier health screening check before they are even allowed to board the plane.
On Thursday, five busloads of pilgrims from Oyo state in southwest Nigeria arrived at the terminal, all dressed in the same yellow and beige patterned cloth for easy identification in the Muslim holy city.
The men, in "buba and sokoto" - traditional long robe and trousers - formed one queue while the women, their heads covered by the hijab in the same pattern, lined up separately.
Shopping bags carried on heads were put down as workers from the Ports Health Authority used contactless thermometers to check the travellers' temperatures; fever is one symptom of the virus.
Just one woman was taken aside for secondary screening but later allowed to proceed.
Another queue formed at a water tank at the compound entrance gates. A helpful official squirted soap from a bottle.
One pilgrim, Afolabi Inabo, said she was sure the measures would work.
"Ebola cannot spread because we have sanitisers, we wash our hands, we have soap, we have masks, we have [latex] gloves," she told AFP.
Some 35 000 pilgrims nationwide have already undergone the same procedure, while both the state and federal governments in Nigeria have carried out health checks even before the pilgrims get on the bus.
Nigeria has been widely praised for its response to Ebola, despite initial fears that the virus could spread like wildfire in the crowded megacity of Lagos, where the first case was detected in July.
Health Minister Onyebuchi Chukwu said on Wednesday that no case of Ebola had been detected in Nigeria for a week, although four people were still under surveillance in Lagos and 344 in the southern oil city of Port Harcourt.
Oguntimehin Olukayode, from the Lagos State health ministry, told reporters that Nigeria had responded "tremendously well" but it was important to be vigilant - particularly with the hajj such a crowded event.
Some two million people are expected at the hajj next month, according to the Saudi authorities.
"The idea behind the screening all passengers in and out of Nigeria is basically to make sure that Nigeria doesn't export any case to any country and at the same time we don't import any case," said Olukayode.
"It's part of that overall role that Nigeria is looking to ensure this doesn't become a problem."
Alex Okoh, from the Ports Health Authority in Lagos, said officials were all too aware of how easily an infected person could get into Nigeria after the first case arrived unwell on a flight from the Liberian capital Monrovia.
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Checks have since been stepped up at seaports and stronger measures put in place at land borders as well as illegal routes into the country.
For the hajj, more than 6 000 pilgrims have been checked and approved for travel in Lagos so far, she said.
"It's huge," she said of the operation, which is backed by the World Health Organisation. "So far, so good. We haven't had any suspect cases for Ebola on the hajj pilgrimage," she said.