[CORONAVIRUS] Epidemiologist sacked for allegedly refusing to manipulate test figures

The Akwa Ibom State epidemiologist, Aniekeme Uwah, has been sacked by the state government under controversial circumstances.

An epidemiologist is a medical professional whose focus is mainly on the study and containment of disease outbreak, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, within a population.

Mr Uwah, a former chairman of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), Akwa Ibom State branch, was leading the fight against the spread of the coronavirus in the state as the state epidemiologist until his sudden removal on Friday.

He was among the African doctors honoured in 2019 by the African Union for their contributions to the fight against the deadly Ebola virus in Liberia.

There are 11 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Akwa Ibom State as of April 25.

The news of Mr Uwah’s removal first filtered into Facebook and Twitter on Friday afternoon before the state government, through the Commissioner for Health, Dominic Ukpong, later confirmed it a day after in a statement issued around 9 p.m. on Saturday.

The information that circulated on Facebook had it that Mr Uwah was removed for pushing in more samples for COVID-19 testing against the number ‘approved’ by the Commissioner for Health in Akwa Ibom, Dominic Ukpong.

Several media aides of Governor Udom Emmanuel scrambled on Facebook on Saturday to counter the information but ended up doing a poor job, posting contradictory and some hard-to-believe stories – in one of the stories, they claimed the sacked epidemiologist hung up a call against the governor. Mr Uwah had not spoken with the governor on the phone. He only had a meeting with the governor two days before he was sacked, PREMIUM TIMES learnt.

“Reason” for his removal

Most people in Akwa Ibom were still confused or completely in the dark by Friday on why the state epidemiologist was sacked, until the spokesperson of the NMA in the state, Emmanuel John, went on a live radio interview on Saturday morning to say what he knew about the development.

“As at when the commissioner for health called Dr Aniekeme Uwah not to test more than 10 persons, Dr Uwah had already tested 19 persons,” Mr John, a medical doctor, said in the interview with Inspiration FM, Uyo.

“The 20th person waiting to be tested when the call came was a senior doctor, a nephrologist who had been exposed to COVID-19 and is self-isolating at the moment.

“What Dr Uwah did by testing 31 persons who met the case definition saved this state grand embarrassment if the people waiting to be tested were turned back for no clinical reason, and also saved the society from community infection, should they turn positive.”

Mr John said the removal of the epidemiologist was one of the most unfortunate things to have happened in Akwa Ibom State.

He said about 84 persons have been tested for the coronavirus in Akwa Ibom State so far.

“When we have a medical doctor who begins to talk about the politics of testing, it’s a shame. It is not acceptable. In medicine, we call it infamous conduct.”

The NMA spokesperson was asked if there was any rationale for testing some samples and leaving out some.

“There is no explanation,” Mr John responded.

“Before a doctor, every patient is equal. Why would you test one and leave the other? It is a bad medical practice, it is a bad public health practice.

“Some state governments who are doing this, they are banking on the fact that these symptoms can be self-limiting for some people with strong immunity. We understand what they are thinking, ‘Oh, if we do not test, the person may have the symptoms and then the person may recover on his own and then it is not recorded for us’.

“I want to say here, at the end of COVID-19, no state governor is going to receive a fund for not having so many cases. If there is anything, a government will get money for having a lot of cases. International partners do not take their money to where there are no challenges.”

Akwa Ibom government keeps mum

The health commissioner, Mr Ukpong was scheduled to be at the same radio station for a live interview by 12 noon to react to the allegations made by the NMA spokesperson. But he declined after the station had already announced his scheduled appearance.

The commissioner rather requested for a recorded interview to be done elsewhere because he was not comfortable with a live phone-in programme, a source close to Inspiration FM said.

The health commissioner did not respond to calls and text messages from PREMIUM TIMES.

The Commissioner for Information in Akwa Ibom, Charles Udoh, around 9 p.m. on Saturday sent out a statement signed by Mr Ukpong, informing the public that one Ntiense Umoette has been appointed as the new epidemiologist for the state.

Apart from saying that Ms Umoette’s appointment was “an internal reorganisation to match skills and competence to role”, the statement did not say why the former epidemiologist was sacked.

The information commissioner, Mr Udoh, just like his counterpart in the health ministry, did not respond to calls and text messages from PREMIUM TIMES.

What appeared to be a semblance of government reaction to the remarks made by the NMA spokesperson came from Facebook posts made by some media aides to Governor Emmanuel.

“The dude spoke like a rascal. I doubt (if) he is a real medical doctor,” Essien Ndueso, a media aide to the governor, said of the NMA spokesperson interview in a post on Facebook.

“He sounded very unprofessional. Reminds of how a typical Buharist sounds,” Cavil Iwang, a pro-government blogger, said, also on Facebook, in support of Mr Ndueso’s comment.

“Buharist” is a term used for people who are ardent supporters of President Muhammadu Buhari.

The number of samples tested for COVID-19 has been a controversial issue in Akwa Ibom. There is a general belief among the people that the state government has not been sincere with its information on sample testing.

“The NCDC publishes the record, we don’t control that process. The tests are not conducted in Akwa Ibom state. ….. I can’t give you that update now because that happens on a regular basis, unless I check with the situation room,” the information commissioner, Mr Udoh, said a few days ago when PREMIUM TIMES asked him how many persons have been tested so far in Akwa Ibom state.

When PREMIUM TIMES pressed on with the issue, Mr Udoh said, “The first batch that had five cases, we sent 17 samples and then, of course, five of them came back positive. This last batch that we just did, we sent 16 samples, three of them came back positive.”

Mr Udoh went on to say, “The NCDC supplies us test kits, we don’t have the test kits. We are looking to buy but we can’t find it.”

He said explicitly that the number of COVID-19 tests conducted in Akwa Ibom was dependent on the testing kits sent to the state by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control.

The commissioner before the interview had said the Akwa Ibom State government was planning an “aggressive” COVID-19 testing in the state.

“There is no such thing as aggressive testing in the state,” the NMA spokesperson said in the radio interview.

The controversial removal of the state epidemiologist has obviously set up another round of clash between the health commissioner and medical doctors in the state.

Some weeks ago, the NMA and other health professionals in Akwa Ibom state had passed a vote of no confidence on the health commissioner and called for his immediate removal. The rift was only settled through the intervention of Governor Emmanuel.

Three persons working in Mr Emmanuel’s administration have told PREMIUM TIMES that they wished the governor could reverse Mr Uwah’s sack and intervene once again in the brewing crisis between the health commissioner and the doctors, for the sake of the fight against the coronavirus.

The information commissioner, Mr Udoh, in the interview with PREMIUM TIMES said the Akwa Ibom State government is doing its best to fight the pandemic and that residents should trust the administration.

“We need to look at this thing as something that concerns every one of us; it could be anyone the next minute. No one has complete knowledge of this thing, nobody was prepared for this. That is why I am on the street, from morning till night I am on the street because we have a responsibility.

“Along the line we will make mistakes. Along the line, we will take decisions that people don’t quite understand. What we expect is that when people look at all that (we have done), they should say ‘look, this decision, these guys took it in good faith’. If you don’t understand, ask questions, ask for clarification so that together we can win this fight,” the commissioner had said.

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