Ebola outbreaks have been recorded across the West Africa region since March and have killed more than 400 people and infected 200 more since March. To fight the outbreaks, leaders from throughout the entire region came together at a meeting Accra, Ghana to discuss the issue with international organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and others. Their meeting yielded no immediate policy changes but it did seem to inspire those leaders of the afflicted nations to affirm their commitment to regional cooperation, all in an effort to fight the threat posed by Ebola.
The current Ebola outbreak has already become the deadliest on record, partly because of cultural factors which have discouraged West Africans from seeking treatment and in some cases avoiding healthcare workers altogether. All of the nations present at the meeting expressed their commitment to further their efforts at encouraging “engagement” between locals and health care workers, which have so far had a difficult time convincing the native populations to trust them and their methods.
Leaders also urged the involvement of regional bodies, such as the African Union, to be more involved in resolving the crisis. So far the threat had been approached by each country in their own way, with little concern for the regional character of the outbreak. Prior to the meeting there was a lot of discussion surrounding the ease with which Ebola infected individuals had crossed into other countries, thereby turning what was Guinea’s problem into both Liberia and Sierra Leone’s problem as well. However WHO did not go so far as to argue in favor closing the borders, which they felt was unnecessary given that the disease was already present in all three countries. Instead they opted for more regional cooperation, which seemed to inspire all parties involved to adopt the policy as well, as it became the central theme of the entire conference.
All nations however did agree for the first time that the outbreaks were a “serious threat,” not only to West Africa but to the entire continent as well. They also pledged to organize an ambitious, aggressive assault against the deadly pathogen. They laid out a basic plan involving leaders at all levels of government, important stakeholders, and also the participation of communities, which so far have been quite hostile to healthcare workers.
More specifically they pledged to educate those communities about the epidemic, but also “respecting the different cultural contexts” involved in their beliefs concerning the virus, which have so far only aided in its spread across the region.
In order to accomplish this, national health ministers have elected to place the “village elders” at the head of the education campaigns in order to lend the health organizations’ recommendations more legitimacy in the eyes of a population which fears western medicine and doctors. In fact the Red Cross recently suspended its operations in Guinea after one its marked vehicles containing its personnel was beset by villagers armed with knives.
Other agencies have reported similar incidences, remarking that it appears that many have taken up the belief that relief agencies have brought the disease to their countries. Hopefully, for the sake of West Africans and the rest of the region, the health ministers’ education plan will discourage such attacks in the future and allow global health organizations to do their work.
Although the many agreements and covenants which were made at Accra, all of which seemed to promote a climate of optimism and resolve, there were less optimistic voices. Keiji Fukuda, the UN assistant director-general of health security, stated that even with these agreements and promises the epidemic would likely “take months” to get under control. Other organizations such as Doctors Without Borders agreed.
However despite these predictions, West Africans can at least take comfort in the fact that their governments, once in denial or in a state of panic regarding the illness, have now decided to face the pathogen which is killing hundreds of their citizens, head on and without reservation. In the months ahead the inspired policies crafted through the discussion held at Accra could create the regional cooperation which WHO claims is needed to beat the Ebola threat and that the region had lacked during all those previous months when each country was left to attempt to stave off the deadly pathogen on their own.
By Andrew Waddell