Lassa fever vaccine coming

From Magnus Eze, Abakaliki

Professor Robinson Onoh is Chief Medical Director, Alex Ekwueme Federal University Teaching Hospital, Abakaliki (AE-FUTHA), Ebonyi State. He speaks on the clinical vaccine trial on Lassa fever that will find permanent cure of the virus in Nigeria, the problem in the accident and emergency unit of the hospital that is affecting surgeries, indigent patients in the hospital and other issues.


In your hospital, only two surgeries are conducted in a week in the accident and emergency unit. People are dying in the hospital because of this. Why is it so?

I believe this is an old story because when we came on board, we noticed that there were some basic challenges in the hospital and we tried to bring in means of solving this problem. So, one of the things we noticed was that sometimes, because of epileptic power supply, it will be difficult to conduct some surgeries. There was a time when I came in, they told me they did a surgery with telephone torchlight and what we did was that we now said okay; it is difficult to sustain the big electricity generator 24/7.

But we have gone in to get more generators that are powered by fuel and we have distributed them to emergency areas, theatre areas and vital areas of the hospital. These genes, if you put 10 litres of fuel, can serve the hospital for 24 hours. You will notice that when you come to the Accident and Emergency Unit now, there will always be light. Even if the national grid is not there, the big generator we say can rest but these small gens, put in the small fuel there, it will power the hospital and you can have your light and fan and you always operate. So, there has been increased turnover of surgeries in our hospital. Not long ago, the former Chairman Medical Advisory Committee (CMAC) told me that they did an audit of the surgeries done in our hospital and the numbers were quite appreciable. So, there has been an increase in the cases that we do.

AE-FUTHA is one of the hospitals selected in five countries for Lassa fever clinical trials. What does this entail?

In the course of our service to humanity, we have been able to upgrade the hospital in areas of clinical services, training and research. In research, we are one of the hospitals that did research on Lassa fever where we have different versions. So, we call it enable 1.0. In that research work, our hospital got seven awards which was the highest award that was given to any hospital in all those involved in the research. And going forward with the research, the federal government liaised with the body; ZP that is undergoing the research and planned that there should be a vaccine trial and that is the clinical vaccine trial.

Clinical vaccine trial is on producing a vaccine for Lassa fever.Ā  You know that Ebonyi State is endemic for Lassa fever. So, our hospital was selected as one of the institutions that will be part of that clinical vaccine trial and this is the first time Nigeria is being involved in a vaccine trial. Incidentally, we are one of the hospitals and this trial will go on in five countries. And so, our centre will be one of the places where the trial will go on. There are three centres in Nigeria that will undergo that clinical vaccine trial; Alex Ekwueme Federal University Teaching Hospital Abakaliki which is our hospital, Federal Medical Centre Owo, Ondo State and Irua Specialist Hospital in Edo State.

These are the three centres where the clinical trial will go on and our hospital is being prepared for that. At the moment, we have the molecular lab with an attached vaccine cold room where the vaccines could be stored; we also have another research lab that was built by one of the partners that are involved in that clinical vaccine trial. That research lab is where what we called jincy pessin is done. You get a virus and get the specific genes that are in the virus and know the type of virus it is. So, itā€™s also in that place that clinical vaccine trials will be going on and within the period it will be going on, the partners will also construct a more clinical building for that clinical vaccine trial. So, we are hoping that it will start this year and stand for one or two years before it will be concluded. If it is successful, what it means is that a vaccine on Lassa fever for the first time, has been produced in Nigeria.

How have you been able to manage the challenge of indigent patients usually abandoned in your hospital because of lack of money to pay their bills?

Previous administrations have brought our different mechanisms of ensuring that patient care is not out of pocket expenditure. In one administration, I think Sam Egwu administration; he declared free medical health care to pregnant women and under-five. Subsequent administrations intermittently come to the hospital, identify those who are indigent and pay their bills. So, one of the requests we made to his Excellency the present Governor of the state is that he should also come to our aid so that those indigent patients when they come to the hospital and received medical care and are unable to pay their bills, the state can come to their succour and pay their bills so that they can go home.

We also need support so that we could have state-of-the-art medical equipment and structures that will provide health care services, not just for Ebonyi State, but also for Nigerians. We think that there is a gap we have identified. We have identified a gap such that if the hospital is supported and it has all it takes to give effective health care services, it can turn out to be a referral centre not just for different cities in the country but also for outside and that is what we want to do in AE-FUTHA, where people could come from outside the country to access health care here.

When they come, the state benefits because when you travel from your country and come to another country, you look for a hotel where you lodge, of course you eat the food and indirectly or directly, you increase the IGR of the state. So, that is what we are looking for: that the state government will support us because we have the workforce; we have all it takes to make our centre the best in the country, even one of the best in Africa.

Constant research and capacity building is very much important in health institutions of this nature. What are you doing in this regard?

We are partnering with Royale College of Emergency Medicine, UK. We have had a zoom meeting with them and we are hoping that they will come in April/May. I am expecting that when they come, they will also have time to visit his Excellency the Governor and the Minister of Health. What we want to do with them is that we want to partner with them such that they will support us in training, support us in capacity building and development and also support us in research.

What we envisage is that the emergency medicine in AE-FUTHA should be like what we watch in movies whereby when an emergency comes, you see the alertness, the commitment and revival of the patient. That way, we can reduce those that die because of not having prompt attention by the doctors or healthcare workers.

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