14 Oct 2014

Ebola: Lessons Learnt And A Way Forward - by Susan Mboya-Kidero

There has been an unprecedented response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Governments, relief organisations and NGOs are doing everything they can to help prevent the virus from spreading by treating patients and providing support to health care workers who, at huge risk to themselves, care for those who are infected.

According to the World Health Organisation, the Ebola strain in West Africa is not the deadliest on record, but it is the most widespread outbreak witnessed to date. The number of fatalities exceeds that of all previous Ebola outbreaks. According to the WHO, more than 3, 300 people have died so far, and world health officials warn that more than 20, 000 people could ultimately be infected. These are serious statistics that governments are grappling with.

The outbreak, which was first detected in March this year, is a humanitarian crisis with far-reaching social, health, political and economic implications for Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia – the hardest hit nations in West Africa.

Governments and economists are starting to calculate the costs associated with the outbreak – and it will certainly pose a significant economic threat to countries in the midst of the Ebola crisis. The World Bank estimates that billions of dollars could be drained from West African countries by the end of next year, if the virus continues to spread at the current rate.

The virus is having a direct impact on productivity, caused by isolation and quarantine measures, as well as fears of infection. The result is a slowing of normal economic activity and cross-border trade. Governments are stretching their already limited resources to provide additional funding for treatment, and to isolate and bury victims. They are also finding that they have to undertake labour-intensive tracing processes to track people who had close contact with infected individuals. This is turning out to be a difficult task. The CNN reports that in Sierra Leone only 20 per cent to 30 per cent of available addresses can be tracked. The inability to trace everyone who has had contact with an Ebola patient is cited as one of the main reasons why the disease is spiralling out of control.

And this is just the immediate effect of the outbreak. What’s more worrying is the long term economic impact, once the disease is contained. In the worst case scenario, the World Bank predicts that economic growth next year could be reduced by 2.3 percentage points in Guinea and 8.9 percentage points in Sierra Leone. In Liberia, which has been the hardest hit country, the economy could lose up to 11.7 percentage points in growth next year. These are extremely worrying statistics.

The crisis is also putting the spotlight on the readiness of countries to deal with serious health threats such as Ebola. I believe that an outbreak of this scale would be a challenge for any countries to manage. However, Africa has been particularly hard hit. Weaknesses exist in relatively new health systems in countries which were only beginning to stabilise after years of civil war.

In the three hardest-hit countries – Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea – there are only one to two doctors available per 100, 000 people. Keep in mind that these doctors are concentrated in urban areas. Add to this the fact that a large number of fatalities are among health care workers – more than 250 contracted the disease and more than half passed away. Sierra Leone has lost some of its top Ebola specialists to the disease, which only compounds the crisis.

Thankfully, many African countries are not currently under threat, but these countries have a mixed scorecard when it comes to readiness to deal with a potential outbreak. Being prepared for an outbreak is so critical to quickly arresting and preventing the disease from spreading. Nigeria and Senegal successfully managed to prevent the spread of Ebola when it was first detected.

Health care has always been an area of strategic focus for The Cola-Cola Africa Foundation – in fact initially the foundation came about as a response to the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa. But recently, TCCAF decided to switch its focus from health care and prevention to health systems strengthening. We are providing resources to help strengthen health systems in affected countries to make it easier for them to fight and bring such issues under control.

Dr. Susan Mboya-Kidero is President of The Cola-Cola Africa Foundation

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