Prior to 2008, there were few infectious disease outbreaks especially Lassa fever. However, in early 2008, it was reported that Lassa fever had wiped out a family of five in Ekpoma, Edo State. Then, the Irrua Specialist Teaching Hospital (ISTH) had been managing cases of the outbreak through the Lassa Fever Awareness Campaign Committee and knew they had to step up to this challenge. 

In July 2008, the then Minister for Health, Professor Babatunde Osotimehin, commissioned the ISTH Molecular Laboratory to provide diagnostic support for infectious diseases in Edo state and across the country. With support from the Federal Government of Nigeria and the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in Germany, the laboratory kicked off its journey towards becoming a centre for excellence in infectious disease testing. From Lassa fever to Ebola, monkeypox to yellow fever, and of recent COVID-19, the 13-year-old laboratory has been a leading reference laboratory for infectious diseases in Edo State and nationally.

Mr. Ikpomwosa Odia, the laboratory manager stated that the facility was among the first to start testing for COVID-19 in Nigeria during the ongoing pandemic. According to him, setting up the laboratory years ago was strategic because it had supported in the response to several infectious disease outbreaks. He wondered what the fate of Edo State would have been during the COVID-19 outbreak if a centre with such experience in infectious disease testing did not exist. 

According to Mr. Odia, ISTH Molecular Laboratory provided support beyond Edo through immediate deployment of its compartmentalized mobile laboratory to Asaba in Delta State on the request of the Delta State Government. The time taken to transport samples to the laboratory in Edo was too long; this move helped preserve the quality of samples for better patient outcome.

“Some of the centres we have supported so far are Federal Medical Centre, Abakiliki in Ebonyi State, Owerri in Imo State, Owo in Ondo State and Nnewi in Anambra State. I can tell you that even Nnamdi Azikiwe University Teaching Hospital (NAUTH) still sends us samples because they trust the integrity of our results. FMC Abakiliki stopped sending us samples after the Federal Government set up a Molecular Laboratory in Abakiliki. The workload was much because we know we had to be up-and-doing to better serve all the facilities, but we are happy we delivered,” he said.

He added “We have been involved in infectious disease testing for over 10 years. Initially, the University of Benin Teaching Hospital (UBTH) sent samples to us prior to the establishment of their COVID-19 testing laboratory in Benin City.  So, we have vast experience and that has made many people trust the integrity of our results.” 

Additionally, staff from the laboratory were drafted to Benin and other states in Nigeria to help increase testing capacity. To equip them, the centre trained its staff who were then deployed to various government owned laboratories in Nigeria to support with running tests as well as train the laboratory staff at their point of assignment. Mr. Odia revealed that this wasn’t the first time the staff were sent to other centres to help with laboratory testing. During the outbreak of Ebola, the hospital’s molecular laboratory staff were sent outside Nigeria to countries like Sierra Leone to support response. He stated that despite the fact that some of the laboratory staff got infected with the disease, no mortality was recorded.

Even after having 13 years of experience on the job managing the Infectious Disease Molecular Laboratory of ISTH, Mr. Odia said managing human resource, especially in the wake of COVID-19 outbreak, has been his greatest challenge. However, despite the challenge, the work has been rewarding for him. He cherished the responsibility of authenticating the laboratory results which helped in the management of COVID-19 patients to full recovery during the outbreak.

According to Mr. Odia, to better fight an infectious disease like COVID-19, the government must ensure they build strong institutions which last for generations to come so that the system can function on its own, because a porous structure will lead to poor laboratory services and patient care. Also, he wants other states to emulate the Edo State Government model in setting up COVID-19 screening centres which cover about every nook and cranny of the state.  To improve laboratory services for infectious disease response, Mr. Odia said the need for improved funding of the health sector and laboratory services was sacrosanct because he believes that it will make testing reagents readily available.

“I must commend the Edo State Government for their effort in setting up the screening centres,” he said. “Back then, we were testing an optimal number of samples because the screening centres were sending samples every day and we were able to detect many cases. It’s rather sad that the structure was on an ad-hoc basis. I encourage other states to adopt the model but put in place a mechanism that is long-lasting.” 

“We can’t talk about improving the health sector in Nigeria without talking about funding. Beyond setting up more molecular laboratories, we need to ensure these laboratories are adequately funded so they can run effectively. Furthermore, I also encourage the government to invest in training laboratory staff to keep them updated with latest protocols for testing samples.” he added. 

“COVID-19 has now become a part of us and we need to put structures in place to continually monitor and treat patients”, he chipped in as the interview came to an end.

This narrative was done in October 2020 as part of the #COVID19NigeriaStories documentation project on state-level responses to COVID-19, implemented by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and Nigeria Health Watch with support from the Ford Foundation.

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