Urging health authorities in West African countries affected by the largest Ebola outbreak in history to "leave no stone unturned" in their efforts to contain the spread of the deadly virus, a United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) official today underscored the critical need to engage community, religious and opinion leaders in the region to be at the forefront of the response.
Speaking at the opening session of the two-day Emergency Ministerial meeting in Accra, Ghana, Dr. Luis Gomes Sambo, WHO Regional Director for Africa, reiterated his call for urgent, cross-border, concrete actions to bring an end to the ongoing Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa, which he said is the largest reported outbreak in terms of number of cases, deaths and geographical spread.
As of 1July, a total of 750 cases and 455 deaths have been reported in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. "The impact of this outbreak has been enormous in terms of loss of human lives and negative socio-economic effects," said Dr. Sambo, adding that health workers have been disproportionately affected, with over 60 cases and 32 deaths reported amongst this group.
Another disturbing marker for this West African outbreak, he warned, is that the Ebola virus is circulating in both urban and rural communities. "The current trend of this epidemic and the potential of cross-border and international spread constitute a public health matter of grave concern," he declared.
Urging health ministers of the affected countries to "leave no stone unturned" in their efforts to contain the outbreak, Dr. Sambo said: "Your leadership is critical in ensuring that preventive and containment measures are effectively implemented in your countries. To this end, I would like to stress the need to redeploy human resources and reallocate funds to facilitate operations in affected communities."
WHO notes that cultural practices and traditional beliefs which are contrary to recommended public health preventive measures are contributing "to a great extent" to the continued spread of the virus in the three affected countries.
One example is traditional funerals involving ritual washing and close contact with the dead person. In addition, the extensive movement of people across borders has facilitated rapid spread of the virus across and within the three countries.
"The current Ebola outbreak has the potential to spread outside the affected countries and beyond the region if urgent and relevant containing measures are not put in place," said Dr. Sambo, calling for improved communication between the Governments, partners and communities to generate reliable evidence for implementation of effective and relevant actions.
Addressing the delegates, Dr. Sherry Aryeetey, the Minister of Health of Ghana said, "We are here to make a real difference, a difference that will be felt beyond this room for millions of people in dire need for solutions. We have a small window of opportunity to prevent the outbreak of Ebola from spreading further."
Dr. Sambo said that the meeting is expected to agree on "a single inter-country strategy, which will galvanize key actors, bring together expertise and mobilize resources for accelerated actions to combat the epidemic."
Health ministers from 11 West African countries, high ranking health officials and international partners are attending the two-day meeting, which aims to agree on the best way to interrupt the transmission of the Ebola virus to reduce the socio-economic impact of the disease and prevent future outbreaks.
The Ebola virus first struck human beings in 1976 in Yambuku, a village in the Democratic Republic of Congo, along the river Ebola. Since then, more than 20 Ebola outbreaks have occurred mainly in East and Central African countries.
In March 2014, Guinea notified WHO about cases of Ebola, which were initially confined to rural Guinea with the epicentre being Gueckedou. What started as a rural outbreak has now spread to Conakry, the capital of Guinea, as well as across borders into Sierra Leone and Liberia.