Liberia Ebola victory: Testimony of power of African solidarity

Monrovia, Liberia – Arriving at Monrovia International Airport, everyone was a bit apprehensive – rightly so after many harrowing stories about the devastation caused by the deadly Ebola Virus Disease in the West African country and some of its neighbours since last year.


As the team of journalists assembled by the African Union Commission to visit Ebola-hit West African countries touched down at the airport, one of the reporters asked what he should do in the event that someone tried to shake hands.

“It’s perfectly safe now to shake hands in Liberia. The worst is over,” reassured one of the medical staff of the African Union Support to Ebola Outbreak in West Africa (ASEOWA).

At the height of the epidemic, shaking of hands – often considered a form of bonding in most African societies – had become a taboo in Liberia and other West African countries.

Most basic services such as health facilities and schools had closed. People avoided contact with one another for fear of contracting the disease. However, life is slowly returning to normal in Liberia.

As the team of journalists was to learn later, it was not plain sailing and a lot of hard work involving a game-changing continental collaborative effort and unparalleled dedication and selflessness by a group of health experts from across Africa and other parts of the world.

“ASEOWA never regretted a day while working in Liberia but that is not to say the work was not without stress,” admitted ASEOWA Head of Mission Julius Oketta.

More than 10,500 people had succumbed to the disease between March 2014 and 1 April 2015.

Oketta however applauded the political leadership provided by President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson as well as the African Union, developing partners and the Liberian people in ensuring that Ebola was eradicated from the country.

Liberia was declared Ebola-free by the World Health Organisation on May 9 after it passed the 42-day threshold with no new cases of the disease being reported.

However, the threat remained as neighbours Guinea and Sierra Leone continued to report cases of the disease, with seven and two confirmed cases of the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) recorded during the week ending May 10, respectively.

According to ASEOWA and Liberian government officials, the major success factors for Liberia’s victory against the EVD included effective case management involving early identification of affected individuals, surveillance of cross-border transmission as well as the active involvement and participation of communities.

This was the first time we saw the African Union Commission and African governments joining forces to collectively fight a disease.

Several countries have deployed health workers to Liberia and other affected countries

“This was the first time we found Africa finding an African solution to fight an African problem in the nature of a health crisis,” observed Liberian Assistant Minister of Health Tolbert Nyenswah.

He called on African countries to remain resolute in their quest to eradicate Ebola and pleaded with the international community to resume relations with Liberia.

“We are just like any of you,” he said.

AU Commission Deputy Head of Communication and Information Wynne Musabayana said the media visit to Liberia and the other Ebola-affected countries was meant to raise awareness about the power of African collaboration in resolving the continent’s problems. From Liberia, the media team is expected to visit Guinea and Sierra Leone.

AU foot soldiers tackle disease from the battle front

In any war or difficult situation, there are those people who risk their lives to go to the battle front despite the seemingly insurmountable odds against them.

These foot soldiers often risk it all to march to the battlefield to tackle the enemy, sometimes unsure about the artillery or potency of their opponents.

The risks are too high that any slip-up could have deadly or disastrous consequences – both for themselves and for the organisations or countries they represent.

This anecdote aptly describes the story of the several thousand men and women who put their lives at risk to go to the battle front to tackle what Liberian Assistant Health Minister Dr Tolbert Nyenswah described as “the most serious public health crisis of international concern”.

According to the head of mission of the African Union Support to Ebola Outbreak in West Africa (ASEOWA), Major General Julius Oketta, members of the AU team were foot soldiers in the truest sense of the word.

“One of the biggest challenges was that of hunting for Ebola cases since some of the areas were not accessible by motor vehicle or motor cycle. This meant that our people had to literally go on foot in order to reach communities,” Dr Oketta said.

In Liberia alone, ASEOWA had a 336-strong contingent, comprising communication experts, psychosocial officers, social mobilisers and epidemiologists.

He said the foot soldiers also had the role of “winning the hearts and minds” of communities that Ebola could be treated using medical means.

This involved an elaborate strategy aimed involving teams of communication experts, psychosocial officers and social mobilisers who engaged community leaders and tried to convince them about the importance of reporting suspected Ebola cases.

“After winning the trust of the communities, epidemiologists would then move in to identify and treat cases,” he said.

In the case of Liberia, which was declared Ebola-free on 9 May, one of the success factors has been the ability of the foot soldiers to convince communities about unsafe cultural practices that were fuelling the spread of the disease.

As a result of the intervention by the AU team working with others, the Ebola infection rate declined from a peak of 100 cases per week in September 2014 when ASEOWA deployed to zero.

Over 4,000 deaths from Ebola have been recorded in Liberia, more than in any other affected country.

Neighbouring Guinea and Sierra Leone continue to fight the outbreak.

The disease has claimed over 11,000 lives across the West Africa region since March last year.

The WHO regards a country Ebola-free after a 42-day period without a new case – twice the maximum incubation period. The last confirmed death in Liberia was on 27 March

Call to fast-track African Centre for Disease Control

The Liberian government has called for the fast-tracking of the establishment of an African Centre for Disease Control (ACDC) to deal with future outbreaks of epidemics on the continent.

Addressing journalists in the Liberian capital Monrovia on May 16, Liberian Assistant Health Minister Tolbert Nyenswah applauded the solidarity shown by the African Union to support his country’s response to the Ebola epidemic that hit the West African country last year.

Liberia was declared Ebola-free by the World Health Organisation on May 9 after it passed the 42-day threshold with no new cases of the disease being reported.

The announcement prompted national celebrations, with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf proclaiming the following Monday – May 11 – a public holiday to allow workers and students to join in the festivities held in Monrovia.

However as Liberians celebrated the end to the epidemic, neighbours Guinea and Sierra Leone continued to report cases of the disease, seven and two confirmed cases, respectively, for the week ending on May 10.

Although this is a dramatic drop from the peak at the end of 2014, continued support and implementation of lessons learned throughout the crisis is required to bring the number of new cases in these two countries to zero and to prevent future outbreaks.

Nyenswah noted that the fact that Liberia has succeeded in eradicating Ebola cases while its neighbours Guinea and Sierra Leone continued to record cases was good enough reason for the region – and the AU – to remain vigilant.

“There is need to establish an African Centre for Disease Control so that as a continent we are well prepared to respond effectively to emergencies in the context of the global health agenda,” Nyenswah said.

Plans for the ACDC, a pan-African public-health agency, got a major boost in April when United States Secretary of State John Kerry and AU Commission chairperson Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma announced that the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention would provide the ACDC with technical expertise and advice.

The 54-member AU has had plans to create the ACDC since 2013 and the Ebola epidemic in West Africa marked the “turning point” that prompted the AU to fast-track the centre.

The ACDC is scheduled to open in June or July, initially at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

It would coordinate research throughout Africa on the biggest public-health threats, including diseases such as Ebola and meningitis.

It would also act as a one-stop shop for data and reinforce countries’ capacities for preventing epidemics and dealing with them — for example by creating a roster of experts and other professionals who could help to form a rapid-response force.  – African Press Agency

May 2015
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