This time around, we are ready for Ebola

Monday, March 22nd, 2021 21:15 |
Fears of spread rife as Ebola claims second victim. Photo/File

Mabingue Ngom

As the world commemorated “Valentine’s Day”, this year, Guinea was on high alert. Since 18 January to 13February, Guinea was monitoring a worrying development.

The Guinean epidemic surveillance and response teams were trailing cases in the Gouecke Prefecture, N'zérékoré region in Southern Guinea.

On 14February, the Ministry of Health in Guinea declared an Ebola Viral Disease (EVD) outbreak and reported it to the World Health Organisation (WHO). 

By 15February, Guinea had traced 192 cases in N'zérékoré and the capital Conakry. This was critical, as the N'zérékoré City is Guinea’s second largest metropolis after Conakry.

The N'zérékoré region also happens to serve as Guinea’s border region with Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone.

A case of Ebola in such a cosmopolitan province and granted the regional proximity prompted international alerts, as spill over spreading to all neighbours was a necessary countermeasure reality informing the level of preparedness. 

The EVD outbreak of 2014-2016 had emerged from Guinea, spread through Liberia and into Sierra Leone leaving devastation in its wake.

By March 2016 when it was firmly put under control, it had claimed 11,301 deaths, infected 28,000 others and had reached Mali, Nigeria and Senegal.

This time around, Guinea is not alone. Several cases of EVD have also been reported in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Though isolated, the EVD cases stirred the entire region to alert mode. They intensified their preparedness levels in readiness to contain the spread of EVD.

The two countries are now handling EVD even as they continue to manage the global COVID-19 pandemic. 

The debilitating experience of the Ebola cases of 2014-2016 remains a turning point for us at UNFPA regional office for West and Central Africa. It shook all of us from our comfort zones.

We learnt the hard way from the impact of the pain, desolation and scars that these infectious diseases left on families blemishing communities and wounding nations. 

Accompanying these infectious diseases is the numbing stigma exposing pregnant women in emergencies and severely harming maternal and neonatal health programs leading to increased mortality and morbidity.

While concentration of the underside of such a scenario focuses on the weakening of the socio-economic pillars of the region, little attention is given on how it compromises safe motherhood and general women’s reproductive health. 

In addition to Ebola, West Africa has also endured the horrors of Zika and Buruli Viruses among other highly contagious and fatal syndromes.

These diseases have left scars on the region, but they have also granted us priceless lessons of governmental preparedness, community mobilization, rapid responses and agility in action. 

Of significance in the current health challenges in Equatorial Africa, however is the knowledge that the rapid responses and crisis management protocols deployed by Guinea and DRC are the ones we helped establish after the harsh experiences of the last EVD outbreak of 2014.

The African Union Commission (AUC) officially recognized UNFPA intervention strategies, which helped contain Ebola in the region.  

Given the volatile nature of infectious diseases outbreaks, the UNFPA regional office for West and Central Africa alongside the country offices, its humanitarian office and development partners established a working manual to respond to such emergencies.

The manual starts with an all-encompassing contact-tracing mobile phone application, that helps identify the affected, locate contacts in real time, transmit data collected by healthcare workers to the main emergency task-force team, provide treatment and contain the spread. 

One of the greatest successes of this App is that it not only saved time but also helped coordinate responses and enabled communities to participate in the fight against Ebola. 

The second phase of our emergency response manual deals with rapid mobilization of resources including emergency medical kits, logistical support, acquisition of personal protection equipment (PPEs) for frontline health staff and dispatching vaccines if available.

It also entails cushioning vulnerable communities, advancing family health, securing financial resources, deploying technical assets, activating trained medics, positioning of support staff and rolling out a comprehensive community sensitive communications strategy. 

The third phase of our protocol is rolling out a recovery plan that includes socio-psychological support for women, children and young people affected by EVD and COVID-19 among other disease outbreaks as well as coping with associated trauma.

These protocols are currently in active deployment across the region. Multi-agency task teams are presently on the ground supporting affected countries. 

In early 2020 when COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic UNFPA restructured its interventions, strategy based on the lessons of the past and kick-started its response.

UNFPA-WCARO pooled all of its internal resources, congregated all the professionals and expertise at our disposal and realigned the budgets of the affected countries for the pandemics response.

The ‘cross-unit Ebola Cell’ within our West and Central Africa region where we work covering some 23 countries was established as the main response task force coordinating all frontline interventions. This protocol is currently leading our response teams in Guinea. 

Responding to the new Ebola epidemic, UNFPA stresses the importance of continuous support and availability of sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services for women and girls.

This includes ensuring the availability of qualified personnel, essential medicines and equipment, and building capacity for infection prevention and health facilities control.

We are calling for a complete implementation of the emergencies response manual and replication of the intervention model that helped us to successfully contain EVD in 2014-2016.

In addition, we must consolidate a stronger collective response based on the 2014-2016 reflections of the opportunities we missed. 

In our quest to contain the spread of EVD, COVID-19 and other infectious diseases, we must ensure that “No one is left behind.”

It is of paramount importance that all responses include the strengthening of infection prevention and control (IPC) measures in all reproductive health facilities covering all personnel including midwives and nurses as well as women giving birth. 

Our experiences with Ebola, and a year now confronting COVID-19 with impressive measures of successes have taught us to remain eternally vigilant, adaptable and refining our intervention protocols on what we already know about pandemic management for future reference.

Our early warning and rapid response humanitarian intervention structures remain dynamic yielding for better responses at all times.

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