Médecins Sans Frontières chief: ‘The fight against Ebola is like a war’

[European Commission DG ECHO/Flickr]

The Director of Operations for MSF has called for a more military response to the Ebola epidemic. [DG ECHO/Flickr

The Ebola epidemic currently sweeping through West Africa continues its advance. In an interview with EURACTIV France, Brice De Le Vingne says that only a vaccine can halt the progress of the epidemic.

On 8 August, the World Health Organisation (WHO) described the Ebola epidemic as “the most severe, acute health emergency seen in modern times”.

Liberia is the worst affected country, with 4706 cases and 2316 deaths on 8 October, followed by Sierra Leone, with 2950 cases and 930 deaths, and Guinea, with 1350 cases and 778 deaths. Nigeria, Senegal, Spain and the United States have also recorded cases of the illness.

Brice De Le Vingne, director of operations for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), said that “the healthcare systems in these countries are underdeveloped. Fortunately, the health service in Guinea is still working, but in Liberia it has partly collapsed because the big hospitals have closed. This is a country that had only around 40 doctors before the epidemic, and whose healthcare system was completely unprepared for an epidemic on this scale”. He added that the international community needed to “put in place an emergency health service in Liberia”.

Historical problems

The troubled recent history of the region has not aided the response to the epidemic. 10 years of war between two of the three badly affected countries have made cooperation difficult.

The international community is beginning to respond to the situation, but a lack of strong leadership has also posed problems. Brice De Le Vingne said that “the fight against Ebola is like a war, and we need a very clear chain of command. […] 3000 American soldiers are being sent to Liberia, and the British army is also sending troops to support NGOs. We still do not really know who will operate the emergency health centres. At the moment, the deployment is slower than the epidemic, so we are losing ground”.

The European Union and the WHO were both slow to react to the crisis, but the Commission has recently announced 180 million euros in emergency aid, including €140 million diverted from the development aid budget intended for other priority projects in the region.

Ending the epidemic

But Brice De Le Vingne believes that the end of the epidemic hinges on one condition. “We will see the end of the epidemic when we have developed a vaccine,” he said.

“But the development of a vaccine depends on private companies, who want to make a profit. In order to encourage them, we simply have to promise them orders. That is the job of the international community. […] We do not have the luxury of time,” Le Vingne added.

European Health Ministers met last week to discuss strengthening checks on travellers entering Europe from African countries and coordinating a response to a potential outbreak.

The MSF director believes aht the risk of the epidemic spreading will remain present even with the tightest of controls, but remained optimistic, saying that “we can expect our health services to respond effectively to the Ebola epidemic. This should be fairly simple with an efficient health service”.

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