In Europe UNMEER Head stresses role of communities in ending Ebola, says Guinea a priority
Paris – Today the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General and Head of UNMEER, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, wrapped up a two-day visit to Paris where he met senior officials to discuss ways to end Ebola transmissions in Guinea.
His visit comes on the heels of the March 3 Brussels conference, where over 600 participants from 80 delegations convened to strategize on post-Ebola recovery plans for Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Despite recent flare-ups, the overall number of Ebola cases is declining in the region.
Collectively, the three countries have seen their transmission rates plateau at around 100 new cases per week since February, mainly due to new infections in Guinea and Sierra Leone. Liberia, on the other hand, has not registered a single new case for a week and released its last confirmed Ebola patient today, which means it can begin the 42-day countdown of zero new cases required to be declared Ebola-free.
Guinea and Sierra Leone had 132 new confirmed Ebola cases in the week prior to March 1, compared with 98 the previous week, according to the World Health Organization. Despite the increase, there are 10 times fewer Ebola cases now than in September, when the virus was spiraling out of control and Liberia was the worst affected.
The success of Liberia could be threatened by slower progress in bordering Guinea and Sierra Leone. “The three countries will either make it together or they will not make it at all,” Ould Cheikh Ahmed warned during his meeting with French officials, including Professor Jean-François Delfraissy, appointed by the prime minister to coordinate France’s Ebola prevention and response operations nationally and internationally.
Guinea, where the first Ebola case was confirmed in West Africa in March 2014, shares a border with six countries, so getting to zero cases there is a priority, Ould Cheikh Ahmed said. UNMEER and the French authorities have committed to working harder together towards that goal.
France has been a key player in the fight against Ebola, particularly in Guinea where it has deployed more than 600 civilian and military healthcare workers, in addition to contributing 200 million euros. It has supported the funding of five Ebola treatment centers, including one in the capital, Conakry, dedicated to national and foreign Ebola caregivers. France is also conducting around 20 research projects, one of which aims to develop a treatment for the Ebola virus.
Tools to fight the disease are in place but specific efforts are needed to overcome community resistance. Many of the new Ebola cases in Guinea and Sierra Leone, for example, are linked to unsafe burial practices.
“Our biggest problem today is community resistance. In Africa, the whole life is around the community and Ebola has destroyed that. We have to understand why they are resisting,” the Head of UNMEER said. He welcomed the announcement by Yves Levy, the chairman and CEO of Inserm, France’s national health and medical research institute, that his institution is funding a major anthropological study to help reach such an undersanding and pave the way for behavorial changes needed to end the epidemic.
Since the outbreak began, affected communities have been advised to not shake hands, to stay away from caring for the sick, and to not engage in ancestral funeral rites that involve touching the dead. Overnight, responsibility to care for ill loved ones and burials were transferred to frontline Ebola responders, sometimes fuelling resentment and violence.
“We almost need a reconciliation process with the communities,” Ould Cheikh Ahmed said, adding that the tremendous progress achieved in stemming transmissions in areas that used to be the epicenters of the virus, such as Forest Guinea, was the result of communities adopting safe practices.
Ebola may have infected over 23,000 people and killed nearly 10,000 in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, according to the World Health Organization, which has been keeping track of all reported confirmed, suspected and probable Ebola cases.