May 12, 2015 By Gabriel Benjamin
“The world is behind UNMEER, and UNMEER is behind the Ebola affected countries. Together, we will get to zero cases.” – Quld Cheikh Ahmed, 2015
Sierra Leone is one of the Mano River Union (MRU) countries hit by Ebola. Others are Guinea and Liberia. But Liberia has just been declared Ebola free, after going 42 days without recording any new case – an incredible feat by a sister country.
Ebola, the most concerning health challenge that Sierra Leone has had to grapple with in the last 11 months, has infected over 8,500 persons and killed over 3,500. Although the numbers of new infections and fatalities have whittled down significantly in recent weeks, Sierra Leone and Guinea have continued to pose one of the greatest challenges to global eradication of Ebola – new cases are being recorded in both countries.
Ebola virus has existed for over 36 years following the first outbreak in Congo and later in Sudan. But the recent outbreak took a devastating swipe on medics in the affected countries. This is largely due to a lack of knowledge on how to deal with an outbreak of such magnitude and the countries’ poor health systems. The virus found its way into Sierra Leone last year through Kailahun, which shares borders with Guinea, in the Eastern part of the country.
However, a report by the charity Médecins du Monde (Doctors of the World), on the collapse of healthcare in Sierra Leone, revealed that malaria was killing more people than Ebola, while maternal and infant mortalities have risen significantly since the Ebola outbreak.
But there is good news. The massive global response, commitments and the zeal of response workers have rekindled hope. “The needs of the population cannot wait until after the zero Ebola cases target is achieved. It is like using both hands to stem a bleeding wound while a beer creeps up behind you,” said Gareth Walker, an international program manager for the UK charity, Doctors of the World.
The UN Secretary General’s acting Special Representative and Head of the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Mission (UNMEER), Mr. Peter Jan Graffe, has affirmed that his topmost priority was seeing that Ebola ends in the MRU before the rainy season. “The rainy season is fast approaching, which will complicate efforts to contain the disease. We have a very small window of opportunity and that window is closing fast. We can’t risk falling behind the virus again. We need to stay ahead of it, and eliminate it before it’s too late,” said Mr. Graffe, during a recent visit.
The delivery and administering of Ebola vaccine to front-line health workers in Sierra Leone by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Centres for Disease Control (CDC) has boosted the confidence of health workers taking care of Ebola victims. Infection of health workers used to be a major challenge, and exacerbated palpable fears. Then, medics were terrified of treating patients, while patients were leery of the medics.
At the 2015 World Bank meeting in Washington with President Barack Obama, the MRU presidents – Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone, Professor Alpha Conde of Guinea, and Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, said that the success so far achieved in the fight against the virus was as a result of the support they received from development partners and international NGOs. They pleaded with the U.S. President and other development partners to further commit themselves to complete eradication of the virus, the rebuilding of their battered economies and health systems, and the provision of social safety nets to those directly hit by the outbreak.
With the massive boost these countries’ health sectors received recently, there is a ray of hope that they will be able to absorb shocks resulting in the event of another outbreak.
The last few months have shown significant improvement in Sierra Leone’s effort at defeating Ebola. “We know where the new cases are coming from, and we have the resources and the manpower. What we need is individual commitment to ensure we get to zero, and stay zero for the 42 days stipulated by WHO, so that we can be declared an Ebola free country,” said President Koroma, in his independence day broadcast to Sierra Leoneans.
Although porous borders in Kambia – northern Sierra Leone, and in other places, have continued to pose significant challenges to response efforts, the current tempo must be maintained and, where necessary, reinforced. Synchronized efforts with other countries and development partners to ensure an Ebola-free country, as was the case with Polio in the region, should be encouraged.
Despite the progress made, there are critical days ahead. Gains that have been made are delicate and losing momentum now would be a major setback.
The government should not relent in ensuring that the future of every Sierra Leonean is no longer threatened by such a disease. Innovative ways to build surveillance, outbreak response centers, accelerated development on the use of vaccines, and galvanized financial alongside political support should be put in place.
According to Esther Sesay, a social mobilizer in Freetown, she is busy each day taking Ebola key messages to people in her community at Goderich. “We can return to our normal lives,” she says.
Such enthusiasm inspires confidence that Sierra Leone may well be the next country to announce victory against Ebola. If neighbouring Liberia can get to zero, and stay zero for 42 days, Sierra Leone too can defeat Ebola.