Don’t drop the ball on Ebola fight – report

A vaccine alone will not eliminate the threat of the Ebola virus, which in the most recent epidemic killed more than 11 000 people, according to a global report to be released today. 

A greater emphasis on global epidemic preparedness and strengthening public health in Africa was also essential, said the report, which spells out what needs to be done to contain the threat in future. 

It urges the international community to prioritise efforts to fight Ebola, even though the immediate threat from the latest epidemic in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea appears to have subsided. 

In a positive development last week, Liberia – which was the worst hit during the West African epidemic – was reported to be Ebola-free after reaching the end of active virus transmission. 

“It is hoped the international community won’t drop the ball just because Ebola no longer seems as scary as it did in 2014,” said public health professor Helen Epstein, author of the Brenthurst Foundation report, titled: 11 312 unnecessary Ebola-related deaths: building citizen trust in health systems. 

“Such a vaccine had been in the works for more than a decade before the West African epidemic, but lack of funding and a general assumption that Ebola outbreaks were invariably small and easily contained, meant progress had stalled,” she said. 

When the virus peaked from 2014, travel bans were enforced amid anxiety over a possible global pandemic. 

Efforts to develop a vaccine “redoubled” from 2014, said Epstein. Clinical trials were initiated or completed and clinical efficacy established. An application had been submitted to the World Health Organisation for a vaccine to be used in emergencies, with plans for a broader reach. But this alone was not enough. 

“More data is needed on the safety and efficacy of these vaccines, the regulatory processes in African countries needs to be expedited, and African public health leaders must plan for how the vaccines will be used,” said Epstein. “All of these activities, along with the refinement of the vaccine itself, need to be prioritised,” she said. 

“In addition to applying global measures, such as a more robust emergency preparedness system for Africa and improved health systems, more care must be taken to understand the particular political climate of each county.” 

The report is the culmination of a global conference held in March, Learning from the West African Ebola Epidemic, which was co-hosted by Democratic Alliance health spokesperson Wilmot James. 

James said that South Africa was in a “unique position” to assist in international efforts due to its medical expertise, research and infrastructure. 

Traumatised nations were seeking to “rebuild themselves on the back of a renewed global effort to prevent, contain and respond to outbreaks of pathogenic disease that will, by, the nature of these things, come again”, he warned in the foreword of the report. 

Epstein is a global adviser and visiting professor of Human Rights and Global Health at Bard College in New York.

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