5 September 2014

West Africa: Could There Be a Positive Note to the Ebola Outbreak?

Stockholm — Could there be a plus side to the Ebola crisis gripping West Africa? Africa's ministers in charge of water seem to think so.

Although there is no data linking the Ebola outbreak with lack of access to clean water and sanitation, the epidemic should bring attention to Africa's water and sanitation problems and accelerate investments, said the African Minister's Council on Water (AMCOW), a body of government ministers from 53 member states.

"Sometimes it takes an outbreak for positive things to happen. Maybe it takes Ebola for sanitation and water to become a top priority. This is like a blessing in disguise: nobody wants it to happen, but you use it as a means to have more commitment and investment in water and sanitation," AMCOW executive secretary Bai-Mass Taal told Thomson Reuters Foundation on the sidelines of a global water conference in Stockholm.

The Ebola virus, which has killed 1,900 people in the current epidemic, spreads through contact with bodily fluids of an infected person, including sweat, blood and secretions.

Like in cases of diarrhoeal diseases, which are attributed to contaminated water supply and insufficient sanitation, one of the measures to prevent Ebola is washing hands with soap.

In the countries affected by Ebola - Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Nigeria and Senegal - about 25 to 40 percent of people lack access to safe, clean water, protected from outside contamination and in particular faeces, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Even health centres treating Ebola patients might not have access to running water.

All of the Ebola-hit countries also practice open defecation, but the situation is most dire in Liberia, the country worst affected by Ebola, where only 17 percent of the population has access to toilets and almost one in two people defecates in the open.

Taal said the crisis might provide a key opportunity for a continent struggling to improve its water and sanitation facilities.

"Up to 65 percent of hospital beds in Africa are occupied by patients with water-borne diseases. We spend much of our health bill on curing instead of prevention," said Taal.

According to WHO, 4 percent of global disease burden could be prevented by improving access to safe water and sanitation.

Even though $1 invested in water and sanitation brings a four-fold return in increased productivity and could prevent costly treatment of water-borne diseases like cholera, there is still insufficient funding for water and sanitation in Africa.

According to Taal, decision-makers in the sector are to blame for not talking to those who hold the purse strings.

"We have failed to convince the finance ministers who do the investments and give the money," he said.

NIGERIA WASHES ITS HANDS

Nigeria, where 18 cases of Ebola have been reported so far, has launched a national hand-washing campaign in a direct response to the outbreak, said Michael Ojo, country representative of global water charity Water Aid.

"Potentially why we haven't seen the rates of the spread as we've seen in other parts of West Africa is because we have taken a quick action to try and really contain the problem. This (hand washing campaign) is part of that action," Ojo told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The WHO has warned that the West Africa epidemic could infect more than 20,000 people and spread to 10 countries.

(Editing by Alisa Tang)

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