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Crisis meeting on Eboa

Susan Houlton with Isaac Kaledzi in Accra
July 2, 2014

Health ministers and officials from 11 West African countries are in the Ghanaian capital Accra for a two-day meeting on the Ebola epidemic which has killed scores of people in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

Guinea Conacry Ebola Virus
Image: Cellou Binani/AFP/Getty Images

The emergency conference was convened by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in response to the rapid spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa. It is the first time the virus has affected the West African region and it is also the worst outbreak since the virus first appeared in 1976 in what was then Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo).

Nearly 760 Ebola cases were confirmed in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone by the end of June, according to the WHO. Nearly 470 people have died.

Ebola is a form of hemorrhagic fever that proves fatal in up to 90 percent of cases. In an interview with DW, Armand Sprecher of Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) explained where the disease originates. "The virus is in constant circulation in bats. The assumption is that movements of the bat population transport the virus and then it moves into non-human primates like chimps or gorillas and then into humans, usually through consumption of bushmeat. The bats roost in trees that are likely also used by non-human primates for the purposes of fruit collection and the like."

Map of West Africa showing Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia
Ebola is spreading through Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia

Traditional rituals can aid the spread of Ebola

The Ebola virus is one of the world's most virulent diseases. Those at high risk of infection are health care workers, family members and others who come into close contact with sick and deceased patients. The Africa regional director of the WHO, Dr Luis Gomes Sambo, said the spread of the disease has been facilitated by the cross border movement of people in the affected region. Traditional cultural practices also play a role, he said. These include traditional African burial rituals in which mourners touch the corpse. This is problematic with deaths from Ebola because the disease can still be transmitted after death.

Dr. Sambo underlined the need for affected countries to better coordinate their efforts with the support of other countries in the region. He also called for more emphasis on research and relevant technology strategies as a way forward.

"We hope to discuss ways of preventing further epidemics and the need to undertake research to address the knowledge gap in relation to the natural history of the Ebola virus disease. We need also more research in relation to relevant technologies for treatment and more relevant preventive methods,"he said.

A UNICEF worker in Liberia reads out an Ebola information poster
There is still a lack of information about Ebola in the affected countriesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Ghana's Health Minister Sherry Aryittey announced that the country's research institutes were available to assist in further research into the virus and the search for a vaccine.

"The Nogushi memorial and research institute will be available to support research into how we can contain the outbreak and in future also find the needed vaccine to make sure that such an outbreak does not occur again."

Many people still not aware of danger

A few days earlier, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf announced that Liberians caught hiding suspected Ebola patients would be prosecuted. The Liberian deputy minister of health, Bernice Dahn, told DW that had been the right decision. "I noticed that since the president's announcement, our coordination meetings have real impact, our political leaders are galvanizing their strengths, community members are calling more often, whenever they see something they are not satisfied with. I think it is helping," she said.

Dahn said the Accra meeting was very important in the fight to contain the outbreak. "It is very important for us, so that we can come out with a common strategy to address the disease. The political will is there, we need the financial support, we have some partners but we need more," was her message.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf says anyone hiding Ebola patients will be prosecutedImage: Getty Images

WHO Assistant Director-General Keija Fukuda said that although there is undoubtedly a need for financial support, African countries must assist each other with information sharing and better coordination if significant advances are to be made. Although there is still no vaccine and no cure for Ebola, Fukuda was optimistic that the battle can be won. "There are so many diseases that we have to deal with for which we don't have optimal tools. Nonetheless we have really learnt that these kinds of outbreaks, these diseases can be stopped. This is not a unique situation, we have faced it many times. And so I am quite confident that we can handle this," he said.

In an interview with DW's AfricaLink radio program, Tankred Stöbe, head of MSF Germany, said many people in the affected region were still not aware of the dangers of Ebola. "There is a lot of advocacy work necessary to make people aware how they can avoid becoming infected and what to do if they see someone sick." A top priority should be the isolation of infected patients. However, a major obstacle is the fact that symptoms in the early stages are quite general - fever, headache, muscle pains - and not immediately recognizable as Ebola.

There have been dozens of outbreaks in the last 20 to 30 years, Stöbe said. "Usually it stays regional [...] but the high mobility of people in these West African countries can be a reason for the current spread."

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