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Monday, October 2, 2023

Ebola outbreak: The need for vigilance

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If you turn to the next page on this copy of your newspaper, there is a news story. It is not in boldface and you might miss it, but it is an important story deserving your attention. The story is, four people have died of Ebola in Guinea in the first resurgence of the disease in five years and eight others have been infected. According to the report, one of the latest victims was a nurse who fell ill in late January and was buried on February. The country’s health minister said among those who took part in the burial, eight people showed symptoms: diarrhoea, vomiting and bleeding and three of them died and four others are in hospital. One of the patients had “escaped” but had been found and hospitalised in the capital Conakry. 

The 2013-2016 outbreak which left 11,300 dead across the region originated from the same area in Guinea. The outbreak sped up the development of a vaccine, with a global emergency stockpile of 500,000 doses planned to respond quickly to future outbreaks. The virus was first discovered near the Ebola river in 1976. It causes severe vomiting and diarrhoea and is spread through contact with body fluids.

This 2013-2016 outbreak was reported to be the most ferocious of all the previous outbreaks. It was also unique in its geographical distribution and unprecedented nature to the extent of being declared a public health emergency as well as a “threat to international peace and security”. Efforts to halt the transmission during this outbreak continued unabated for many months. This was because it spread to overcrowded urban areas with highly mobile communities and dense populations, unlike the previous ones which were easily and quickly contained since they emerged and spread in the remote and rural areas.

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The outbreak ravaged mostly three West African nations, including Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Other countries later on suffered from the small exposures to the disease starting with Nigeria, Senegal and Mali. The epidemic went on to spread beyond Africa to Italy, Spain, and the US through health care workers who mainly included the nurses and nursing aids. According to WHO, by the time West Africa was declared Ebola free in June 2016, the total number of cases in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone were reported to be 3,811, 10,678 and 14,124, while deaths stood at 2,543, 4,810 and 3,956 respectively.

The Gambia was spared mainly because of the timely intervention of the government of Yahya Jammeh. As soon as the dire nature of the outbreak was brought to his notice by the then works minister Bala Garba Jahumpa and health minister Omar Sey, President Jammeh issued a fiat closing the border and travel with all the affected countries. It led to a lot of hardship for local trade and commerce and the eventual withdrawal of the vital Gambia Bird airline, but it saved lives and a potential unmitigated catastrophe.

We hope our health, immigration and regional transportation authorities have taken notice

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