New Ebola outbreak is being tackled by a stronger WHO in the African region

by Matshidiso Moeti | World Health Organization
Friday, 15 June 2018 11:30 GMT

A worker from the Ministry of Health monitors the temperature of a traveller from the Democratic Republic of Congo as a preventive measure against Ebola as they arrive at port Soua, crossing the river Oubangui that connects the Democratic Republic of Congo to Bangui, Central African Republic June 14, 2018. REUTERS/Paul Lorgerie

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The experiences of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone have revealed to us a new outbreak—an outbreak of confidence, that our continent has turned a corner and is, once again, ready to grow

Mention the Ebola virus and many people recall the 2013-16 West African outbreak, which killed more than 11,000 people in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea while causing more than US$2.8 billion in economic damages. The governments of these countries and the international community, as well as the UN and WHO, were unable to contain this outbreak rapidly.

Few people recall the Ebola outbreak of 2017, which took place in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC's) northern province of Bas Uele, lasted less than two months, and claimed only four people. This was attributable to the international community's rapid, coordinated and effective response, with regular situation reports updating all partners and stakeholders.

Currently, WHO in the African region is responding to the latest outbreak of Ebola Virus Disease, which began in the western part of DRC, in Equateur Province. This outbreak has been testing the internal reforms that WHO has implemented in response to the 2013-16 outbreak in West Africa.

In Equateur, WHO has set up a mobile lab, provided personal protective equipment to field workers, began screening people to determine who might be at risk of infection, and deployed community outreach workers for peer education about the disease and how to contain it. We began using a new Ebola vaccine, one whose effectiveness was assessed positively at the tail end of the West African outbreak. Donations and support from the United Nations, the World Bank, the British Department for International Development and the Wellcome Trust are boosting the emergency funding.

Even though the confirmed cases to date number in the dozens, this outbreak still has the potential to spread to larger population areas because of the geography and movement of people. WHO has worked hard at understanding how to prevent emergencies and assess country risk, drawing from an analysis that mapped the risk and distribution of epidemics in sub-Saharan Africa from 1970 to 2016

Disease outbreaks and other emergencies often occur in areas where poverty intersects with a lack of provision of basic health care. When all citizens receive services—either in the cities, the countryside or anywhere in between—they can have the dignity and security to live healthy productive lives. In Africa, we are not there yet, but we have made progress in this journey.

Countries like, Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, which were affected by the unprecedented Ebola outbreak, are putting in place stronger systems that not only address curative services but also preventive services with support from WHO and development partners.

Earlier in this decade, Africa had some of the fastest growing economies in the world. Five years ago, the World Bank placed sub-Saharan Africa’s growth in GDP at 5 percent; in 2017 the growth rate was half of that. There is no reason we cannot rebound—as long as we look after the health of our people.

Ebola can be a scary disease, one that, as we know, has a high fatality rate and can cause massive disruptions in society that lead to significant economic loses. But one could say that the experiences of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone have revealed to us a new outbreak—an outbreak of confidence, that our continent has turned a corner and is, once again, ready to grow. Ebola and other outbreaks to come will test that readiness—but we will still move forward. 

Matshidiso Moeti is the WHO Regional Director for Africa. She is a public health veteran, with more than 35 years of national and international experience.