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Ebola: Africa’s research challenge

17 Aug

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Ebola has been in the news and on many lips lately. Rightly so when one considers its ravaging assault in West Africa.

As at August 15, a total of 1,145 lives had been lost and approximately 2,127 cases reported according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). The prominence of the disease this time has also arisen due to the much publicized attention given to the two American citizens, Dr Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol. The duo were infected with the virus and evacuated to the US from West Africa. Also evacuated was Spanish priest Miguel Pajares, who eventually died.

The reporting and coverage both in Africa and internationally has been intense. The impact of the disease has been immediate and cannot be ignored. But in the whole scheme of things, what does this merciless attack mean for Africa?

The Zmapp hope

An experimental and untested drug has been administered on the three named victims so far. It has further been reported that Liberia has received some doses of the drug as efforts intensify to contain the disease.

The Zmapp drug had not yet been tested on humans before this but due to the emergency nature of this latest attack, it seemingly became impossible to maintain the status quo while the disease spread rapidly. Especially when one considers the high mortality rate in the region of about 90%.

Africa equally has pinned her hope on this drug. No vaccine or treatment is available yet to fight Ebola. The supply of Zmapp may well be a challenge as it is believed the manufacturers had run short on supply already since it was produced to support ongoing tests, not to bring a catastrophic attack under control.

The two American aid workers are said to be improving after treatment. There also has been no uproar fortunately for using the drug before it could be tested on humans. Even when used in Africa, not much resistance or bad press is expected as the case would perhaps have been if it was first tried on Africans.

Short supply. Experimental drug. Rapid loss of life. This is the grim reality Africa faces and her hope requires her to look West. It is not in her hands at all.

A loss beyond the disease

Without a doubt, Ebola comes with an economic impact. West Africa and by extension most parts of Africa may experience a slump in the number of visitors to the continent. This inevitably will pose a challenge for the tourism sector on the continent.

Flights into West Africa have been cancelled in some cases until there is assurance that the Ebola outbreak is under control. Nigeria has been the latest country added to the list of countries under threat after Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Kenya was in the news as being a high risk destination.

While all this is happening, day to day activity has been derailed in some of these countries as citizens opt to remain home rather than be exposed to the virus. This disruption in productivity and economic activity will surely have unquantified impact in dollar terms.

A time for introspection

Most African countries cope poorly in times of crisis and this episode is no different. The World Bank is on record offering $200m to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. This is meant to assist in the procurement of “medical supplies, pay healthcare staff and other priorities to contain and prevent future outbreaks”.

The Zmapp drug is a product of a Western laboratory and if at all there is steady supply secured, it will inevitably be from outside Africa.

While affected countries grapple with this deadly disease, we have seen media images of unburied corpses in streets. The Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf publicly apologised for the Ebola death toll of health workers and Government’s perceived insufficient action and slow response to the crisis.

These three scenarios above raise fundamental questions for our continent. Are we investing in our capacity to deal with the varying crises our countries face?

Historically and traditionally, we almost always will depend on the West and the East now,to bail us out. This is among the things that we must be actively aiming to change.

The World Bank’s assistance is appreciated and will likely make a difference in curbing the spread of Ebola. But where are our resources and is our will alive to fight our battles?

The experimental Zmapp will come from the West and Africa will receive whatever doses are available. The cost has not been made public as yet if at all there is one attached. The irony here again is how much Africa has purposed to invest in her capacity with strong consistent will.

Heeding the call of research and science

Has our research and scientific capability been enhanced to deal with our unique challenges? Ebola was first reported in Congo in 1976 and we have had reported cases since then, culminating in the current attack.

During this 30+ years window, are we able to show that we have accorded necessary attention to research and an active intention to find the vaccine and treatment for Ebola?

This may appear critical and ill-timed while efforts are put in place to fight Ebola. But it is the very loss of life and panicky dependence on international help that should spur us into self reliance.

It is our airports that will be shunned, our tourism that will take a plunge and national treasuries that will be blown to facilitate emergency expenditure.

And if that be the case, logically we must be the ones in the forefront in devising solutions.

Africa must now become a force in science and research. All this disease, poverty and death presents the opportunity to review our collective agenda. What treatments can we discover? What drugs can we manufacture? What resources can we galvanise to boldly face the challenges our continent comes up against every so often?

The missing voice

Information dissemination has been in overdrive since the current Ebola outbreak struck. We are being enlightened about what the disease is, how it is spread and how deadly it is. Tune to any of the international news channels and the reports are in your face. Locally in Zambia, the papers are running consistent messages about what the government is doing to prevent the outbreak and what we must all do to keep ourselves safe.

But there is a missing voice. Where are our African researchers and what part have they been playing in finding a treatment for this menacing disease?

It is time Africa paid attention to science. Time we became a researching continent that applies resources on proactive approaches to our unique circumstances. That calls for deliberate leadership, resource mobilization and a long overdue acceptance that we are our own solution.

Idealistic as it may sound, we need to start somewhere. That $200m should have been funding generated by Africa and invested in health care and research way before over 1,000 lives were lost. Africa should be the continent currently busy in the laboratory testing a “Zmapp”.

After all, it is in our best interest to do so. We remain thankful for all the help that is coming through to avoid further deaths. But we must now cast our sight on the next years and decades.

Africa must rise to this challenge urgently. Ebola has taught us this and continues to do so with the next life lost.

Will she learn and rise to face this challenge?

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Posted by on August 17, 2014 in Leadership, Opinion, Policy, Politics

 

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