by Tobi Adebowale
Last week, when the Minister of Health, Dr. Onyebuchi Chukwu announced at a press conference that Nigeria had nearly effectively dealt with the threat of Ebola and that only one Ebola virus disease victim was left undergoing treatment, we were all beginning to feel like the worst was behind us. However, barely 24 hours later, it was reported that a certain doctor in Port-Harcourt may have died from the deadly virus after secretly treating an ECOWAS diplomat, Mr. Olu-Ibukun Koye in a hotel. Further tests confirmed that the doctor, Iyke Enemuo died of the Ebola virus disease while his wife similarly tested positive. The irony is that the doctor lost his life while the man he treated, Olu-Ibukun Koye survived and has been certified Ebola free upon returning to Lagos.
So how do you solve a problem like Olu-Ibukun Koye, an educated man who was informed of the possibility that he was a carrier of the virus, yet defied surveillance instructions and endangered others by travelling to Port Harcourt? What sort of punishment, if any, should be meted to the man who, according to the Rivers State Commissioner for Health, Dr. Samson Parker “had been quarantined among other people for having primary contact with the late Dr. Sawyer, the Liberian-American who transmuted the Ebola virus into Nigeria, sneaked out of the isolation unit where he was being observed and took a flight to Port Harcourt and switched off his phone so that he could not be reached or traced should he answer a call.”
Bad, bad behavior indeed! But do we have the laws to deter people from such recklessness?
What we have in Nigeria as of today is the Quarantine Act of 1926 which can be found in chapter Q2 of the Laws of the Federation of Nigeria (LFN) 2004. Yes, you heard that right – Our Quarantine Act is 88 years old.
The Act was enacted “to provide for and regulate the imposition of quarantine, and to make other provisions for preventing the introduction into and spread in Nigeria, and the transmission from Nigeria, of dangerous infectious diseases.”
The Act has 8 sections and in Section 2, it lists the diseases which it covers to include: “cholera, plague, yellow fever, smallpox and typhus, and includes any disease of an infectious or contagious nature which the President may, by notice, declare to be a dangerous infectious disease within the meaning of this Act”. There’s no Ebola in that list. However, we can neatly classify Ebola as a “disease of an infectious or contagious nature which the President may, by notice, declare to be a dangerous infectious disease within the meaning of this Act.”
In comparison, under the laws of the United States of America, section 361 of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S. Code § 264), empowers the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services to “take measures to prevent the entry and spread of communicable hemorrhagic fever”. Ebola, as you may know, is an example of a communicable hemorrhagic fever.
Anyway, back to the Nigeria.
Section 4 of the Quarantine Act 1926 lists the regulations which the President can make to control the spread of an infectious disease. Section 4(c) talks about the President making regulations for “preventing the spread of any dangerous infectious disease from any place within Nigeria, whether an infected local area or not, to any other place within Nigeria”. The efforts of the Nigerian government to establish Ebola isolation units as well as quarantine and surveillance are the kind of actions which the law empowers the president to take to prevent the spread of the disease. But Mr. Koye, chose to defy the powers of the president as guaranteed by the Act. His evasion of quarantine in Lagos which the Minister of Health as representative of the President had facilitated can be said to be a violation of the Act, as he deliberately thwarted the efforts of government to contain the Ebola virus in Lagos and prevent its spread to Rivers State.
So it can be interpreted that Mr. Koye violated our 84 year old Act. Imagine the balls! So what does the law prescribe for such devious audacity?
Let us put it like this: If Mr. Koye is dragged before a magistrate court today according to section 7 of the Quarantine Act, his punishment if found guilty is prescribed in section 5 which states that “any violation of the provisions of the Act attracts a penalty of N200 fine or six months imprisonment or both.”
You see why we need to amend that law?
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