More than 70 civilian and military representatives from 22 agencies came together in Lagos, Nigeria, on Oct. 24, 2011, for a weeklong exercise to prepare for a potential pandemic.
The Pandemic Disaster Response Tabletop Exercise was hosted by the Nigerian government and organized by U.S. Africa Command with the support of the Center for Disaster and Humanitarian Assistance Medicine and funding through the U.S. Agency for International Development.
The tabletop exercise was designed to assist participants in identifying shortfalls and gaps within existing pandemic disaster plans and to provide recommendations for building national and regional capacity.
In his opening remarks, Air Chief Marshal Oluseyi Petinrin, Nigerian chief of the Defense Staff, said, "The whole idea of this conference is to avert socio-economic, cultural and political disruptions associated with a pandemic crisis."
U.S. Africa Command's senior representative at the opening ceremony was Brigadier General Stayce Harris, mobilization assistant to the commander. "Dealing with a pandemic, from planning to post operation phases, is a high priority for the United States Government," said Harris.
"We must keep in mind that health and security issues are closely linked. Consequently one of U.S. Africa Command's strategic objectives is assisting partner nations with protecting populations from deadly contagions. As a result, the U.S. Government has committed specific resources to helping our partner militaries in Africa and Asia in this mission," Harris continued.
Nigeria is currently in the third phase of a five-phase approach within U.S. AFRICOM's Pandemic Response Program, which ensures the Nigerian Defense Force has a contingency plan to support civil authorities in responding to a pandemic or disaster.
The current phase focuses on Nigeria's national issues with a particular emphasis on the areas of operations, communication, health, security, and logistics. Coordination between each of these focus groups was facilitated by assigned liaison officers, who facilitated dialogue and ensured a unified response throughout the exercise.
The exercise began with academic sessions presented by subject matter experts, some from Nigeria and others from East Africa.
Lt. Col. Eric Lanham, PRP program officer, stated, "U.S. AFRICOM's Pandemic Response Program is the tool for African partner nations to build capacity within their militaries and nations in order to ensure the maintenance of security and stability. This exercise is a Nigerian exercise, meaning the Nigerian government ministries and agencies have taken ownership of it. They have designed it to meet their specific needs. They have shaped it to ensure what we provide in a way of facilitation, assists them in making improvements to their current plans. So the bottom line is that we are not forcing a western way here, but providing the Nigerians with a method which will create long-term benefit for their country."
Throughout the week, attendees will participate in five capacity building plenary sessions requiring them to respond to a series of exercise injects. As the exercise develops, the scenarios will become more complex simulating a real pandemic crisis.
During the process participants are encouraged to identify shortfalls in the national pandemic plans. The feedback that is given at the end of the exercise will result in recommendations on how the Nigerian government could improve its pandemic plan and utilize military assets to fill these identified gaps.
"A good disaster preparedness plan is like a book, with each responsible agency, including government ministries, elements of civil society such as Non-Governmental Organizations and the commercial or private sector, academic institutions, and external assistance organizations, including UN agencies and bilateral donors, responsible for a chapter," said Michael Hryshchyshyn, USAID, foreign service officer, and chief of U.S. Africa Command's Health and Humanitarian Activities Branch.
Phase four of the U.S. Africa Command PRP will focus on writing or revising the existing contingency plan based on what the Nigerian government identifies this week as a way forward.
Each chapter needs to be carefully written and technically sound, and each chapter needs to fit neatly in an integrated way with all the others, Hryshchyshyn continued. He added that editing the book is essential if countries are to mitigate the potential adverse consequences of disasters in order to save lives and livelihoods.
Alhaji Muhammad Sani Sidi, director general of National Emergency Management Agency, reminded attendees of the havoc pandemic influenza can have on the world. In 1918, the Spanish influenza pandemic claimed more than 20 million deaths, more than the total number of deaths recorded in the course of World War I. The current global alert of a possible influenza pandemic caused by a novel virus makes it imperative for every nation to prepare in advance its response mechanisms.
"No nation is immune to disasters or pandemic crisis," Sidi explained. "This requires a conscious preparedness and response plan by related organizations to deal with such a situation as and when the need arises."
In Nigeria, NEMA is the lead agency for coordinating disaster management for the Nigerian government. NEMA plays a leading role for developing integrated and coordinated activity amongst stakeholders with the aim of having a unity of purpose and synergy toward a pandemic response.
"The severity of a pandemic influenza will no doubt impact negatively on the well-being of a nation resulting in deaths, illnesses and others socio-economic consequences," Sidi added. "I urge you to cooperate with the organizers of this exercise who are also assisting us with necessary support to achieve our desired goals of saving lives by providing timely responses during situations of emergencies."