Ebola exposes Africa's fragile healthcare system

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The 2014 U.S-Africa leaders’ summit also known among realism circles as the U.S response to China’s investment in Africa summit was supposed to be the headline story across the continent and the Diaspora. It was the perfect moment for Obama to silence the critics who claimed that Bush the son of Texas did more for Africa with initiatives to fight Malaria and AIDS during his presidency.

Ebola had its own plans and couldn’t be stopped from breaking the rule of thumb – avoiding groundbreaking domestic headlines during a major foreign policy trip for Africa’s heads of State. The outbreak has been unprecedented and Ebola is now arguably Africa’s most dangerous disease.

Ebola indeed has more known unknowns than AIDS. There is still debate regarding Ebola’s natural reservoir, transmission from reservoir to humans is still a mystery, there is currently no cure, no treatment and no vaccine. Even more worrisome is the notion that we continue to witness a growing list of affected countries with each outbreak. Cases of Ebola have been reported in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Uganda, DRC, Gabon, Sudan, Ivory Coast and South Africa over the years. The potential for Ebola to transform into a major epidemic cannot be overstated. Though experts emphasize that Ebola virus is only spread through direct contact with bodily fluids of infected individuals, the rate at which it’s spreading across geographical boundaries in remote areas leaves us with more questions than answers.

It was inevitable to compare and contrast the images filtering through media outlets of African leaders arriving in Washington on private jets with those of Africans dying from Ebola under abysmal conditions in makeshift clinic tents and corpses lying on the streets. Ebola couldn’t have found a more perfect environment to flourish. The combination of poverty, inexistent healthcare infrastructure, shortage of trained healthcare personnel, poor living conditions and a high population density highlight a perfect storm. While speeches were being made in Washington reminding the world how Africa is rapidly growing basing on economic indicators, Ebola reminded us that the roof might be painted but the foundation still has plenty of cracks. Disease outbreaks always do an excellent job of shedding some light on Africa’s ignored sectors and populace.

One can only hope that African leaders at the summit in Washington were able to watch footage of Ebola infected American volunteers being evacuated from Africa’s inexistent healthcare system. If there was a moment for our nations to get a message that something has to be done, the time is now. Africa is home to nations with some of the World’s worst healthcare systems. It should therefore not be a surprise when affected nations cannot cope with disease outbreak. While the immediate priority is to contain the spread of Ebola and treat infected individuals, African nations need to devise long term measures to adequately prepare for epidemics. No country is safe since we live in a world that is interconnected. All it takes is one infected individual taking a flight and spreading pathogens to other regions. Public health officials and policy makers should be on high alert and take some of the following steps:

  • Institute screening, surveillance and tracking systems.
  • Immediate detection and containment plans.
  • Strategic facilities across nations with sufficient capacity for emergencies.
  • Educating the public on preparation, response, emergency procedures and preventive measures.
  • Training healthcare personnel, emergency response teams and volunteers.
  • Funding research for cures and vaccines.
  • Public access to protective equipment during outbreaks.
  • Instituting public alert systems.
  • Coordination of healthcare teams to optimize available resources.
  • Providing access to healthcare resources in rural areas.
  • Conducting emergency response drills.
  • Instituting capabilities for mass vaccination and treatment.
  • Investing in healthcare infrastructure.

The current Ebola crisis highlights the challenges that need to be addressed to have a healthcare system ready to contain disease outbreak. Public health emergencies are inevitable and will continue to emerge without warning. The earlier our nations invest in the necessary healthcare infrastructure, the more lives shall be saved while minimizing economic and political repercussions. We should take action before disaster strikes again!

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