11 Dec 2014

Spike in Ebola outbreaks underlines danger of complacency

Almost a year after the first death from Ebola, Sierra Leone surpasses its neighbour Liberia as having the highest number of cases in the world.

The Red Cross has warned there could be a possible rise in the rate of infections across west Africa and that there was a danger of complacency from the international community, as people travel across the region during the festive holidays.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), there are now 7,897 reported cases of the virus in Sierra Leone, out of a total of 17,942. So far, 6,388 people have succumbed to the disease.

Read Tom Clarke's blog: Is British Ebola hospital in Sierra Leone up to the job?

However, the figures emerged as health officials reported that an Ebola outbreak had been missed in the east of the country.

“It is difficult to put an exact figure on the deaths,” Sierra Leone’s health minister Abu Bakarr Fofanah told Reuters, explaining that his country was only counting deaths from laboratory confirmed Ebola cases.

Bodies piled up

The WHO said on Wednesday that it had sent a response team to the diamond-rich Kono district following a worrying spike in reported Ebola cases in the district, which lies along the country’s eastern border with Guinea.

Ebola graph countries

The number of cases of Ebola by month.

“They uncovered a grim scene,” the UN health agency said in a statement. “In 11 days, two teams buried 87 bodies, including a nurse, an ambulance driver, and a janitor drafted into removing bodies as they piled up.”

The Centres for Disease Control reported that the original projection of cases were expected to rise to around 1.4 million by February, however, it has been kept relatively under control.

Echoing calls by the UN to scale up efforts of stemming the spread of Ebola in the face of new infections in Mali and Sierra Leone, Elhadj As Sy, head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said there is an increasing need for more resources to be invested across west Africa, and increased focus on tackling the stigma surrounding the disease.

No room for complacency

Speaking to Channel 4 News, Mr As Sy said: “We are very pleased that now the movement of solidarity internationally is coming up to the required scale to make that difference.

Mr As Sy said: “The international community was caught by surprise, as were the governments of the countries concerned. So we all regret the final response was not as quick as we have wished for at the beginning. But now we have to appreciate that really almost everybody is chipping in.

It is not an optimism that should lead to any kind of complacency. Elhadj As Sy

“We still have a way to go. It is not time to be complacent. It is not time to be less vigilant. And it is time to maintain those efforts so that we can preserve the gains of all that we have made. It is time to further invest so that we can declare this region free of Ebola.”

How much are western nations giving?

Mr As Sy praised the British response to the disease, who has been leading the aid efforts in Sierra Leone.

Figures analysed by Channel 4 News shows that the UK comes second only to the US in terms of aid committed to Ebola through UN channels.

Ebola funding

Even in terms of percentage GDP, Britain’s aid contributions are some of the highest of all rich nations.

Ebola GDP

NHS ‘brain-drain’

Sir Malcolm Bruce, chairman of the International Development Committee, has opened up the debate on using NHS expertise to help develop more health systems overseas today.

Speaking at a Westminster Hall debate, he said staff had been seconded to Sierra Leone but it raised a number of issues.

The Liberal Democrat MP said: “One is that, actually there ought to be a permanent partnership across Government to use Dfid and the NHS capacity to help build those health systems and use some of the NHS expertise, which was being done and is being done in Sierra Leone.

Read more: 'I felt I had to act' - NHS volunteers leave to fight Ebola

“But what we revealed… we are not training enough health service staff for our own needs and I would argue, and to some extent the committee’s recommendations point to this, that we should be training more than enough staff for our own needs on the grounds that we could then have people who can be seconded abroad without leaving our own health service understaffed.

“And although we have a policy of not recruiting directly into the NHS from a whole long list of developing countries, a worthy attempt to avoid if you like brain-draining to us qualified health professionals from poorer countries, the fact remains they are not prevented from coming here or applying and there are doctors and nurses from Sierra Leone working in our health service, when one would like to think they should be working in their own health service – alongside some of our volunteers and secondees to tackle this problem.”