Here's one reason Nigeria has halted the spread of Ebola

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and you’re tuned to The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH here in Boston. I think it’s fair to say that Ebola is the top news story in America right now, now that authorities have announced the first confirmed case of the disease in the US, a Liberian man who fell ill while visiting relatives in Dallas, Texas. Today, officials there said they’re carefully monitoring a dozen or more people who came into contact with the infected patient. With all the fear surrounding the Ebola outbreak, I’m sure a lot of you are thinking about it. But there is actually some good news to report on Ebola. Health officials in Nigeria, for example, are being praised for successfully containing the disease there. That success started in the lab - Dr. Christian Happi’s lab. It was one of two in Nigeria tasked with confirming the first diagnosed case in that country back in July. It was a case of Liberian-American Patrick Sawyer, who flew into Lagos already sick, and who later died there. Happi’s lab was sent his blood samples.

Christian Happi: We received the samples around 9PM in the night. We actually started processing the sample around midnight and the next morning, as early as 6:40AM, we released the result. We repeated it about 3 times, because when we saw it, it was positive the first time, we wanted to be very sure, because it was the very first case of Ebola in Nigeria.

Werman: Were you part of the process of physically conducting the blood test?

Happi: It’s actually the laboratory, using the latest diagnostic technology. Where I received the sample, I actually decided to take the lead myself, because I didn’t want to leave room for any mistake or to be able to responding to questions that I wasn’t too sure about.

Werman: Right, as you say, several times to make sure that you’re not getting any false positives. Doctor, we hear so often about how, to borrow a line from the late novelist, Chinua Achebe, how things fall apart in Nigeria, how they don’t work, from abysmal roads and traffic to finding kidnapped girls. How do you account for Nigeria’s success so far in containing the Ebola outbreak?

Happi: First was what I call “sheer luck.” Sheer luck because Patrick Sawyer came into Nigeria through the airport -

Werman: And this was the man who came - the civil servant from Liberia.

Happi: Exactly. He stumbled at the airport and because he was a high profile civil servant, so he had a protocol service waiting for him, he was taken from there to one of the best medical facilities in Lagos. Going to that medical facility, they diagnosed malaria, they couldn’t get, because he was coming from Sierra Leone. Then they sent a sample to Lagos University Teaching Hospital and us. From that point on, Patrick Sawyer was quarantined. Because he was quarantined, that reduced dramatically the number of people that could have been exposed. The other scenario could have been - imagine if it was somebody that creeped into Nigeria through the porous borders, then got sick in a small, rural community, then transmitted the disease in that small, rural community and then from there, the ravage, the havoc would have started.

Werman: The city of Lagos, with its 10+ million inhabitants, when Patrick Sawyer first landed there, everybody had the nightmare scenario on their minds. What’s accounting for Nigeria not letting this get out of control at this point?

Happi: The first aspect I mentioned was sheer luck. Then the second aspect was actually preparedness on our own part. We were involved with our collaborators at Harvard because we have consortium. The countries involved in this consortium are Sierra Leone, Senegal and Nigeria. So, why we were involved in attacking Ebola in Sierra Leone, we actually put in place in Nigeria the machinery for diagnosis of Ebola. So, when we received the sample, we had all that was required already for Ebola diagnosis.

Werman: So preparedness.

Happi: Preparedness.

Werman: Dr. Happi, I guess I’m not too surprised to hear that you were very hands-on through this whole diagnostic process, because I’m told when you grew up in Cameroon, your childhood heroes were doctors Watson and Crick, who discovered the DNA molecule. When you were a kid, how many other young people were holding up doctors. Watson and Crick as role models?

Happi: I would think that there are many others out there. A lot of young kids in Africa have dreams and aspirations and I’m sure there are probably many young people like me out there. I was probably lucky that I had opportunities and then it was, more or less, my dreams in life coming true with what I’m doing now.

Werman: Doctor Christian Happi, whose dream come true is about keeping others safe from a deadly disease. Dr. Happi is a professor of biological sciences at Redeemer’s University just outside Lagos, Nigeria.