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Abuja's airport closure: Time to update medical evacuation plans

Operatinigeria can present more than a few challenges.  Starting March 8, add the closure of Abuja’s international airport to that list. Projected to last six weeks, the airport closure is a hassle for travelers to Nigeria’s federal capital and it’s a potentially significant challenge for those needing medical evacuation for the city.

Some background:  The second busiest airport in Nigeria (after Lagos), Abuja’s one runway is in need of repairs necessitating closure of the entire airport. Nigeria’s aviation minister Hadi Sirika is quoted as saying that given the disrepair the airport was “on it’s way to shutting itself.” During the closure, flights will be diverted to Kaduna airport 200 kilometers north of the capital. Given concerns about security along the road that links the two cities, some airlines — including Lufthansa — that normally service Abuja will not fly into Kaduna.  The kidnapping of two Germans from a village approximately 30kms from the Abuja – Kaduna road on February 22 will only heighten those security concerns.

Medical evacuations are complicated in general and the closure of the airport in Abuja adds to the complexity. Some considerations for organizations operating in the Nigerian capital:

  • Review procedures for responding to a medical emergency — i.e. the immediate steps staff and travelers should take including first aid, incident reporting/alerting, etc.  Important in Abuja is understanding how a patient would be transported to a medical facility; some clinics offer ambulances & some don’t.
  • Identify in advance your options for emergency medical care and stabilization in Abuja.  As with any medical evacuation, a patient will need to be “fit to fly” before an evacuation. While the airport is closed, patients in Abuja will also need to be fit for the road journey to Kaduna, too.
  • Know when and how to engage a medical assistance/evacuation provider.  Earlier is better to help assess the condition of the patient, provide guidance on medical treatment and begin the coordination of an evacuation if necessary.
  • Armed escorts are recommended for the ground transport to Kaduna airport. Medical assistance providers should coordinate escorts as part of the evacuation process but organizations need to understand how this works and especially how long it may take to mobilize. This overland travel piece reinforces the need to contact the medical assistance service early.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of advance planning – in general, but especially in this case. Organizations with operations in Abuja should consult their medical assistance/evacuation provider prior to any emergency to understand plans for coordinating a medical evacuation during the closure of the Abuja airport and adjust local procedures as necessary.

Inevitably current contingency plans will be further developed as evacuations occur and lessons learned are (hopefully) incorporated into the process. For organizations operating in Abuja that means keeping aware of the situation and periodically checking in with assistance providers and peers to see how these plans are playing out in “real life.”  As with most challenges in Nigeria, being prepared for medical evacuations during the closure of Abuja’s airport will require prior planning and the ability to adapt plans as the situation develops.