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Experience Handling Ebola Epidemic May Help Africa Dodge Coronavirus Bullet


A volunteer disinfects a residential compound to prevent and control the novel coronavirus, in Ganzhou, Jiangxi province, China February 6, 2020.
A volunteer disinfects a residential compound to prevent and control the novel coronavirus, in Ganzhou, Jiangxi province, China February 6, 2020.

The World Health Organization is scaling up measures to keep Africa free of the deadly coronavirus by shoring up the continent’s fragile health system and increasing preparedness efforts to tackle the potential spread of the dangerous virus to the continent.

In its latest update Saturday, China reported 811 deaths inside China out of 37,198 cases. The WHO in its Friday update reported 270 cases in 24 countries, including two deaths outside mainland China, in the Philippines and Hong Kong.

The novel coronavirus has been moving with breathtaking speed since it was first detected in China’s city of Wuhan in December. While the number of cases of the pneumonia-like illness has been expanding to more countries around the world, so far it has not gained a foothold in the African region.

But that is of little comfort to Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa. “We are very concerned about it as we have watched it reach other continents around the world.“

We know that there is quite significant travel of people from China to Africa and back ... business people working in different African countries. And we have an intense travel of African business people, particularly going to China,” she said.

Moeti told VOA her team had begun working with member states to help them “get ready for the possible onset of the coronavirus.” She said the WHO was providing overall guidance to ministers of health on how to manage possible cases and prevent the further spread of the disease.

She said the experience gained in tackling the Ebola epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo could be usefully applied to a possible outbreak of the coronavirus on the continent.“

We recognize that our countries have invested quite a bit in preparedness on the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the DRC,” she said. “And we are seeing that in some of the key areas, that readiness is now being deployed in relation to this coronavirus outbreak.”

Moeti was elected as WHO Regional Director for Africa in February 2015 at the peak of the historic Ebola epidemic in West Africa. At the time, the WHO was widely criticized for its delay in sounding the alarm over Ebola and for failing to warn the world of the dangers posed by the disease, which infected nearly 29,000 people and killed more than 11,000.

The WHO has been careful not to repeat that mistake. It declared the coronavirus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) on January 30, one month after the disease was first reported in Wuhan City.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, said the decision to declare a PHEIC “was taken primarily because of the signs of human-to-human transmission outside China, and our concern of what might happen if the virus were to spread in a country with a weaker health system.”

He added that “both the coronavirus and Ebola outbreaks underscore once again the vital importance for all countries to invest in preparedness, not panic.”

The WHO chief noted that more than $1 billion has been spent trying to stop the Ebola outbreak in the DRC. “By comparison, just $18 million was spent on preparedness in Uganda. But when Ebola did cross the border, they were ready, and stopped it.”

The U.N. health agency has released $9 million from its emergency fund to provide essential supplies, such as masks, gloves, respirators and diagnostic tests to countries at risk.

On February 5, it launched an appeal for $675 million to prevent the global spread of the deadly coronavirus.

Moeti said she and her team were working hard to help countries with their preparedness plans. “One of the major areas in which we are working with our countries is to improve the diagnostic capacity because that is the first intervention, in a way that will tell you what situation you have.”

Until earlier this week, she said only two laboratories — one in South Africa and the other in Senegal — were capable of testing samples. She said four more countries — Ghana, Madagascar, Nigeria and Sierra Leone — now have the capacity to conduct tests as well.

The WHO has identified 13 top priority African countries, which either have direct links or a high volume of travel to China. They include important hubs in countries such as Angola, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, and Zambia.

Moeti said screening methods developed to detect people who might carry the Ebola virus now are being deployed at airport points of entry to spot people who might be infected with the novel coronavirus. “

It is one of our highest priorities. We are beefing up the screening capacity in countries," said Moeti.“

Happily, in some of the countries,” she said, “it is happening in addition to what is already being done in relation to the risk of Ebola. But it is being reinforced.”

She said African countries now are in a better position to deal with a major disease outbreak than a few years ago. She warned, though, this could not be done without “significant resources, domestic investment, as well as international solidarity in supporting African countries.”

Moeti said a sustainable response and commitment from the international community is needed to bring the coronavirus to heel.“

I really do hope that this coronavirus outbreak stimulates and encourages those types of investments, so that we do not peak and go back to square one, and then peak again when an outbreak actually happens in countries,” she said.