What are we really doing about the Ebola epidemic?

West Africa is in the throes of an Ebola epidemic that is unprecedented in both scale and scope.

It is the deadliest ebola virus epidemic in history, and it is happening right now in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria.

According to the World Health organization (WHO), more than 40% of the 3,069 cases reported since the outbreak began in December 2013 have occurred in the past 21 days.

More than 1,500 people have died, and the WHO says more than 20,000 people could be infected before the outbreak can be brought under control.

Fears of the virus penetrating our borders has prompted  the South African government to issue a a travel ban to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, the three worst afflicted countries.

But other than pulling up the drawbridge and shutting down our borders, South Africa, along with the rest international community, has been accused of doing little to fight the spread of Ebola in West Africa.

According to a international aid worker and operations director of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) Brice de la Vigne, ,the response of the international community has been “almost zero”, adding that leaders in the west are more concerned with ensuring their own safety than preventing the spread of the virus.

He might have been talking about South Africa, which has closed its borders and sent, other than a diagnostic mobile laboratory, its condolences.

To its credit, South Africa is, according to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), at the forefront of Ebola research.

And South Africans are rightly concerned about the virus entering the country, and the government response can be seen in light of those fears.

But the desire to keep the country Ebola-free shouldn’t stop us helping out in what has developed a desperate situation in our continent.

Public-health officials have stopped smaller outbreaks before, so we know it is possible to end the current disaster sweeping through West Africa. But these afflicted countries cannot do it alone.

One of the biggest problems in fighting the spread of the virus in West Africa is poor health infrastructure, which contributed rising rates of infection, and has left many aid workers overwhelmed.

The virus has hit three of the world’s poorest countries and authorities lack the financial resources and human power to mount an effective response. This makes a timely intervention by the international healthcare essential.

Some have suggested that large teams of foreign aid workers and disaster-assistance experts like the ones who dealt with disaster zones such as the tsunami in Southeast Asia and the Haiti and Kashmir earthquakes are what’s needed.

But what the epidemic also highlights is the need to focus on strengthening regional institutional capacity in Africa for disease prevention and control, and South Africa needs to be part of that solution if we hope to prevent another outbreak like this one.

Harvard professor Calestous Juma makes makes this observation:

The basis for strengthening Africa’s health innovation systems already exists in national and regional institute of higher learning across Africa. Much of this work focuses on finding cures for local diseases. The challenge, however, is that they have hardly received the political attention that is commensurate with their public importance.

In other words, there’s a lot more that African countries, including South Africa, can do to help in fighting the threat of Ebola spreading in the out-of-control manner in which it has been. Our leaders just need to exert the political will to do so.

Our measure of success in our response to the Ebola epidemic cannot just be about stopping its spread to South Africa.  It should also be about doing more to make sure African countries are have better access to the resources needed to deal with any infectious disease.

Chris Tobo

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