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Ghana’s close shave with Ebola : the lessons to be learnt

Ebola

The Ebola viral disease outbreak in West Africa this year is by far the world’s largest Ebola outbreak in history since its discovery in 1976. Statistics by the World Health Organization indicate that, the disease, with a current death rate of 70%, has claimed close to 3,000 lives mainly in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.

It is believed that there is the likelihood of under-reporting of the actual deaths resulting from the Ebola outbreak in the sub-region and that the real figure exceeds 3,000. On top of all that, epidemiologist tracking the spread of the disease assert that, the exponential growth rate of the disease over the past few weeks could result in about 10,000 cases per week in affected countries. Though the implications on the world’s economy is yet to be fully realized, there are already indications that if the disease runs wild in Nigeria, the world’s fourth largest oil producer and second largest supplier of natural gas, it could deal a big blow to the global economy.

As paradoxical as it may sound, while authorities in neighbouring countries; Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria, are grappling with the deadly Ebola viral disease, whose cure is yet to be completely accepted globally, health facilities in some parts of Ghana are also battling with the outbreak of Cholera; an easily preventable and treatable disease. Available statistics suggest that, in less than three months, the disease has claimed 128 lives out of 16,527 reported cases – case fatality rate of 0.8% in eight out of the ten regions of Ghana. Accra, the seat of Government, tops the chart with 4,734 cases with 37 deaths recorded. To further elaborate on the horrid nature of the situation, more than 2,000 cases with 25 deaths were recorded in only two health facilities in the national capital, Accra. Reports indicate that health workers are overstretched and every available space in some health facilities are occupied with cholera patients. In fact, despite efforts by authorities to curb its spread, there are indications that the outbreak is far from over and practicable strategies need to be instituted to tackle it squarely both now and in the future. Evidently, the outbreak has dwarfed governments containment efforts and until this threat is given a serious attention, it will continue to be a perennial issue.

Considering these two scenarios; in neighbouring countries and in Ghana, it becomes starkly clear that the cholera outbreak in Ghana is a strong warning to authorities in Ghana to gear up; an excellent opportunity our neighbours unfortunately did not have. For now, Ghana has been spared, the guaranteed deaths, public fear and the freeze in business activities that accompany an Ebola outbreak and we earnestly hope it remains so. However, this close shave with the ill-omened Ebola viral disease and rather the outbreak of a preventable and treatable disease should be seen as a clarion call on Ghanaian authorities to take a second look at the health care systems in place and strengthen them to survive the vagaries of the future. It is time to wake up to the realisation that, yes, eventually help will come in times of crisis, but it will not come as hard and fast as would be needed. The challenges that lie ahead in the future require proactive thinking and a level of preparedness that is not only independent of foreign aid but also beyond infallible. Health care delivery and response to emergencies in general need to be critically examined and improved to withstand similar outbreaks or even more difficult situations.

Looking into the future, it behoves on policy makers and local authorities to prepare district and regional emergency plans that will feed into a national emergency plan for both the foreseeable situations and the ‘surprise attacks’ in the future. These plans should clearly spell out emergency procedures in all scenarios and the responsibilities of all institutions to be involved. Emergency

volunteer groups for all possible scenarios, including floods, disease outbreaks, fire outbreaks, oil spills, earthquakes, among others should also be instituted and trained in advance. Most definitely, the human resource capacity of our formal institutions would not be able to squarely handle such scenarios as the Cholera outbreak is signalling and trained volunteer groups would have been very helpful. These purposely trained volunteers would be instrumental not only in disseminating information to the general public during emergencies but would also serve as first responders who would promptly respond to such situations while concurrently augmenting the existing workforce of formal institutions.

Education of the general public on safety measures during emergencies should be highly prioritized to forestall a general sense of fear and panic among the public under such circumstances. Generally, this has not been given the attention it requires during the cholera outbreak in the country. Public education on cholera prevention and treatment has not saturated the either the traditional or social media as political debates and sports news have. The general public therefore feed on half truths and speculations that are not only fictitious in most cases but also breed fear and panic. This is definitely not the way to go and a paradigm shift is required. There should be conscious efforts to inundate the media and hence the minds of the general public with relevant information on disease outbreaks and other future emergencies. In this era when social media has become the order of the day, authorities could utilize this prospect to disseminate relevant information to the general public in addition to the traditional media.

Our country should have a dedicated fund for emergencies to fast track the acquisition of aid items and its release should be devoid of the long, winding bureaucratic processes that currently characterise our public sector. Ghana needs to take a cue from the slow-paced response of the international community to the havoc-wreaking Ebola disease outbreak in West Africa and resolve to tackle future emergencies with resources from her national coffers. As we consolidate our position as a middle-income country, it is very crucial to progressively wean ourselves from handouts from the developed world and begin to tackle issues with our own resources.

Most importantly, preventive measures must be instituted to deal with the perennial outbreak of cholera once and for all. For far too long, it has become obvious that the curative strategies have not yielded the needed results against cholera outbreaks and it will undeniably not work against more ruthless situations in the future. Although remedial efforts cannot be completely left out, much resources should be devoted rather to preventing catastrophes. The National Disaster Management Organization and other allied institutions should be adequately resourced to implement preventive strategies against disaster but not the other way round.

Wake up Ghana, for the future beckons!

Author: Isaac Monney

Lecturer, Department of Environmental Health and Sanitation, University of Education Winneba

Email: [email protected]

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