Ebola: Creating the foundations for a cure

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Medical staff working with Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) prepare to bring food to patients kept in an isolation area at the MSF Ebola treatment centre in Kailahun July 20, 2014 [Photo: Reuters]

Medical staff working with Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) prepare to bring food to patients kept in an isolation area at the MSF Ebola treatment centre in Kailahun. [Reuters]

The European Commission’s recent pledge to fast track €24.4 million of emergency funding for Ebola research is a sterling example of what the EU can aspire to when it works together for the common good, writes Nicholas Rutherford.

Nicholas Rutherford is Event Director for AidEx, the leading forum for the international aid and development community to come together and tackle the challenges faced in improving the delivery of aid across the globe. The flagship annual event will be taking place at Brussels Expo on 12-13 November.

The EC initiative will bring together some of Europe’s best research scientists and pharmaceutical players, with projects ranging from a large-scale clinical trial of a potential vaccine, to thoroughly testing new and existing treatments. In the short-term, the end goal is to offer relief to those afflicted by this devastating disease. Over the long-term, the efforts could have a lasting benefit for humanity.

Innovative methods and technologies, such as the mobile clinics deployed by the North Star Alliance or Diamedica’s portable anaesthesia machines, have a clear role to play in helping deal with health crises in the developing world. But such solutions must function as a compliment to, and not a substitute for, proper disease prevention and containment. And both those begin with well-funded, properly staffed hospitals and treatment centres.

The European Commission has shown real commitment by also investing in training and strengthening healthcare systems in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. But why is this still necessary? It is depressing to once again find governments in both the developing and developed world scrabbling around to find the 40,000 staff needed to bring the disease under control.

Ebola is a particularly nasty, infectious disease that has hit medical workers as hard as the patients they strive to treat.  According to the WHO, 256 health staff have been infected and 134 have died in this most recent outbreak.  And the problem has been compounded by strikes over low pay and difficult working conditions for doctors and nurses.

But it cannot be right that NGOs (most notably MSF) are doing most of the heavy lifting on Ebola by themselves, because governments still do not have the resources or staff to equip and man their hospitals and treatment centres properly.

Recent history shows us that doing this brings immediate and tangible benefits. Ebola was successfully contained in Nigeria and in Uganda (in the 2011 outbreak) because health systems were adequately resourced and politicians and healthcare workers knew what to do and how to treat patients accordingly.

As we move into the final phase of the post-2015 discussions, it is encouraging that more than 70 countries (including Sierra Leone and Liberia) have begun to invest in health systems that will help their citizens in their daily lives as well as prepare them better for handling future shocks.  But clearly we are not there yet. And, once again, it is an emergency that has exposed the deep cracks in the healthcare systems of vulnerable countries.

No one knows whether we are likely to find a vaccine that can be of use in time for this outbreak of Ebola (my guess is no).  But, once the immediate emergency has passed, the international community must hold its nerve.

Nations impacted by Ebola must continue to invest in strengthening their healthcare systems, while EU countries must put their money where their mouth is when it comes to expressing true support. For many, this will mean pulling their ODA targets out of the long grass, brushing them off and getting them back on track. It also means putting in place more measures to stop the brain drain of highly skilled medical staff leaving Africa to plug gaps in Europe’s own understaffed healthcare systems.

New technologies and innovations in healthcare are always welcome, when these have a tangible and positive impact on patient care. But they must be viewed as complementary to, not replacements for, solid infrastructure and qualified, well-paid and well-supported medical staff.  For the EU, true solidarity must last beyond the visit that new Ebola Coordinator and Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid, Christos Stylianides, will make to West Africa next month.

Otherwise, well-intentioned gestures that aim to show the international community standing shoulder–to-shoulder with afflicted countries will end up seeming more like a photo opportunity than a genuine act of commitment for the longterm.

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