Ebola in Africa

by Waleed Fatth (GEI Global Programs Manager)
“It’s possible to control Ebola. It’s possible to defeat Ebola. We’ve seen it here in Nigeria.”
(Onyebuchi Chukwu, Nigerian Minister of Health)

How to defeat Ebola has become one of the most important questions in global health debates. Since the current outbreak was declared on March 22 in Guinea, the world has lost more than 4,500 lives, and we are still struggling to find a proper response and a strategy to control and ultimately defeat the disease. North Americans and Europeans became a lot more engaged and also concerned when the first cases appeared in Spain and the USA. What’s more, Ebola did not just destroy the healthcare systems in the affected countries in West Africa, it also severely impacted their economies and social structures. And it doesn’t stop there. The African continent as a whole is suffering due to a largely unjustified global panic that stops people from visiting countries that are far away from the affected West African nations and don’t pose any related health risks, including our own destinations like Rwanda, Tanzania or South Africa.

The cancellations of touristic visits to East and Southern Africa show how little many people in North America and Europe actually know about Africa, the second largest continent in the world with a landmass more than three times the size of the USA. Much more dangerous, however, at least when it comes to defeating diseases such as Ebola, is our frequently very limited understanding of healthcare systems, social structures, cultural values and so on…

Last Monday, we witnessed a first very encouraging sign: The World Health Organization officially declared Nigeria free of Ebola! It’s well worth to study the Nigerian case in greater detail because it also hints at a very important long-term strategy for defeating diseases such as Ebola also in other countries. So what happened in Nigeria?

Defeating Ebola

Nigeria, the most populous nation in Africa and a country that is frequently criticized as chaotic and disorganized, demonstrated that it has a surprisingly strong and robust healthcare system that was able to generate an immediate and comprehensive response to the outbreak. The authorities did not just identify and track down every single person who might have possibly been in contact with the first Ebola case in the country, but they also included all those people living within a particular radius around the initially monitored persons. In total, they screened no less than 20,000 households! So, regardless, of all the notorious challenges that the country faces, its systems functioned effectively and, in contrast to the much more unfortunate countries like Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, its authorities had the capacity needed to develop and implement an immediate response.

This case study demonstrates the fundamental importance of long-term capacity development measures – for individuals such as health professionals, for institutions and especially also for systems. And in that, it isn’t very different from a range of other case studies that deal with capacity deficits in many other health areas, whether the unnecessary premature deaths of newborn babies or immense challenges of hospital-acquired infections. It is these latter areas where we at GEI are making our own little capacity development contributions, and we invite qualified professionals and students to join our efforts. And we believe that there’s no need to wait until Ebola has been defeated. The global panic about traveling to completely unaffected areas e.g. in East or Southern Africa is largely unjustified. Instead, we should make use of the current global interest in Africa’s healthcare capacity and launch much deeper support!