Ebola and the African Health Care Worker [opinion]

NOW WE know that epidemic diseases, such as Ebola and Aids, are democratic but treatment is not.

That alone should be enough to send chills down the spine of those of us who live on this African continent. Likewise, it should also make the governments of Africa pause and rethink the future of their respective health care systems.

Simply stated, the continent’s poorly-functioning health care systems are not only a public threat but also a security risk. Take the case of Dr Samuel Brisbane, one of Liberia’s most high-profile doctors, who died of Ebola while treating Ebola patients at the country’s largest hospital, the John F Kennedy Memorial Medical Centre in Monrovia. Before Dr Brisbane’s death, a Ugandan doctor, who was also treating Ebola patients, was also reported to have succumbed to the same disease.

There is also the reported case of the two Sierra Leonean doctors who died of Ebola, including Sheik Umar Khan, the doctor leading Sierra Leone’s fight against the Ebola outbreak.

Now compare the African health professionals’ situation with that of the two Americans, Dr Kent Brantley and hygienist Nancy Writebol, who also contracted the deadly Ebola virus while treating Ebola patients in Liberia.

Brantly and Writebol are now reported to be improving after they were airlifted to Atlanta for treatment in their home country the United States of America. They also were able to sidestep medical regulatory procedures and promptly received the experimental drug developed by San Diego’s Mapp Biopharmaceutical.

While the West African Ebola outbreak was killing African physicians and more than 1 300 other people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, African health workers infected with the Ebola virus were initially denied the experimental drugs. Apparently because the drug hasn’t been tested on humans – only in mice and monkeys – therefore it could not be administered to the Africans.

The four deceased African physicians’ fate is not an isolated incident but follows that of dozens African nurses and health workers who also have died of the Ebola virus or were infected with the disease while treating Ebola patients. Also, not only does their death highlight the dangers faced by the African health care workers but also suggests that Africans themselves are on the front line of the battle to halt the worst Ebola outbreak known to human kind.

Yet when one turns on CNN, BBC or reads other international news, one would think that the only generous and selfless people fighting to eradicate this deadly disease are Westerners. Apart from making do with weak health care infrastructures and poorly-resourced health care systems, African medical doctors in the service of African governments are (not to talk about nurses and other health care workers such as social workers) paid less than the politicians.

Although giving the two Americans the anti-serum drug while at the same time denying it for many Africans they came to save, raises a moral question, treating the two American health workers was the right thing to do. Their skills and expertise are needed in the continuation of fighting the Ebola disease. If they die they leave behind an irreparable gap in the fight against this deadly disease.

The same should also be true about treating and saving the African health care workers who contract the virus, while treating the Ebola patients. Not doing so is not only a recipe for disaster but also immoral.

African governments’ responses to the Ebola outbreak vary. The Liberian president called for three days of prayer and fasting as the solution. Other African countries opted to fence off their borders or aised their citizens not to travel to Ebola zone countries.

Frankly, I am not sure about a prayer being an effective solution to a disease like Ebola or HIV-Aids. But I also know that there is another potential solution: Africa must mobilise, in the pan-African spirit, a continent-wide assistance to the affected countries.

The continent also has to develop the long-term capacity to manage and respond to epidemics, including setting up a research and development agenda for health care.

The continent’s dependency on other nations for solutions is what is putting African citizens at risk. Therefore, it goes without saying that Africa should think deep and innovate herself out of this helpless situation when it comes to treating major epidemic diseases.

– The author is a lecturer at Unam in the Department of Human Sciences. The views expressed are entirely his.

Source : The Namibian