Within the span of a week there is a grim sense of anxiousness coming out of Africa with stories of an unknown fever that killed over 10 people in Congo, and quarantines of entire towns. Some governments have even resorted to closing borders and banning commercial flights to Ebola hotspots.
The issue of poor health care and sanitation infrastructure in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia has meant that outbreaks of infectious disease are almost guaranteed to pushed government containment efforts to the limit. A major shortage of trained health care workers, most of whom have no experience treating Ebola in West Africa, has also severely hampered disease control efforts.
In Guinea the failure to implement a timely, assertive, public health awareness campaign to advise citizens how to protect themselves from contracting the highly contagious virus, may have led to many avoidable infections resulting from the customary cleansing and burial rituals performed on Ebola victims.
Profound stigma of the virus exists in many West African communities and has led to increased attacks on and further marginalization of suspected Ebola carriers. Families of infected individuals are known to hide loved ones displaying symptoms of the disease or seek the usually more discrete traditional healers for treatment.
It is this type of stigma that may have motivated an angry mob from Liberia’s notorious West Point slum to storm an Ebola intake facility releasing over 35 Ebola patients into hiding.
Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation of about 160 million people, is reportedly the only Ebola-affected West African country with less than 20 confirmed cases.
However, the implications of numerous cases of potentially infected people slipping through the Nigerian government’s surveillance and quarantine measures against the backdrop of an unrelenting insurgency by Boko Haram threatening much of the country’s north eastern region, coupled with a recent, premature declaration of successful containment efforts by Nigerian health officials, is sure to raise questions over the capacity of the government to effectively control the epidemic.
This week, Ebola re-emerged in The Democratic Republic of Congo, the second largest country, by land mass, in Africa. Congo also suffers from a largely defunct health care system, a consequence of many years of conflict fueled by resource plundering and corruption.
Whilst the Congo has much more experience with the Ebola virus, it is not yet clear whether the Congolese government and its partners will be able to effectively implement containment efforts to again bring Ebola under control.
Missteps Amidst Increasing Isolation
The WHO has reported that this recent outbreak is unlike any other in history, having taken a serious toll on healthcare workers on the frontline of the outbreak. Of the over 240 healthcare workers infected, at least 120 have succumbed to the virus.
While several African countries struggle to bring the Ebola outbreak under control we continue to see reports of clinics within already-strained medical systems being shut down. Facilities in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere have been closed, a measure which complicates crisis resolution.
Border closure policies and flight bans have been adopted by countries including Kenya, Senegal, Gabon, South Africa, France and Brazil, in spite of a recent WHO advisory that such policies will not serve as effective Ebola disease control measures.
While the threat of the Ebola virus remains very real and its impacts, especially on the fragile health care systems of poor nations, should not be underestimated, steps must be taken to temper fear with rational, decisive action.
Tiffany Wheatland is an Adjunct Professor teaching courses on African development, and crime in Africa at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York