Dealing With Ebola and Anthrax Prepared Africa for COVID-19
Selena Ruto, a community health volunteer, visits the Kibet family in Narok County in Kenya to discuss the risk of anthrax.

Africa’s brutal experiences battling Ebola and a range of other deadly diseases helped prepare health systems to deal with COVID-19.  And by the time the SARS-CoV2 virus landed on the continent, its Centre for Disease Control (CDC) had already “established regional coordinating centres, increased lab capacity and unified surveillance networks”. 

The lessons in emergency response had been honed by countries facing dire threats not only from Ebola, but other little-known pathogens such as anthrax and monkeypox, according to Epidemics That Didn’t Happen, a report launched on Tuesday by Resolve to Save Lives, an initiative of Vital Strategies.

In 2014, Nigeria was able to contain Ebola through a “herculean public health effort” that involved “effective communication, coordinated response activities and dedicated leadership”, according to the report.

Meanwhile, in 2019 only one Ugandan family was infected with Ebola before the country contained the disease, which has a fatality rate of 66%.

Within days of an Ebola outbreak being declared in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in August 2018, Uganda had opened multiple Ebola treatment centres and rapid testing laboratories near its border with the DRC, screening all people entering the country. By that November, Uganda had vaccinated almost 5,000 health workers and response staff.

In June 2019, a family returning to Uganda from the DRC were diagnosed with Ebola at a routine border screening point. They were immediately placed in an Ebola treatment centre and almost 300 of their contacts were vaccinated. There were no further Ebola cases in the country.

Meanwhile, a sharp-witted Red Cross volunteer in the Kenyan town of Narok along the Great Rift Valley triggered a community-based surveillance system after encountering three people who became sick after eating meat from a dead cow. This helped to contain a potentially deadly anthrax outbreak in 2019.

‘Now or Never Moment to Invest in Public Health’

The report shows “how the trajectory of an outbreak can be altered when a country invests in and prioritises preparedness combined with swift strategic action”.

“This is our now or never moment to invest in public health, to prevent the next pandemic, and ensure that as a world, we are never again so underprepared,” said Resolve’s President, Dr Tom Frieden. 

“This report highlights great work of public health professions from around the world and shows that epidemics don’t have to spread uncontrollably and cause devastating loss of life. If we work together, we can make the world a much safer and healthier place,” he added.

According to Resolve, the COVID-19 pandemic could have been contained if there had been adequate global pandemic preparedness.

Interestingly, Africa fares well – precisely because the continent has faced a number of serious disease outbreaks and developed a wide range of responses.

In contrast, a complacent US defunded its pandemic preparedness efforts shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic. This is best illustrated by the Trump administration’s decision to disband the Global Health Security and Biodefense unit and Predict, a $200-million pandemic early-warning programme designed to work with scientists across the world including in China, to identify viruses that had the potential to cause epidemics. Predict was ditched three months before the COVID-19 pandemic was declared.

Unlike the US, Africa’s CDC, which coordinates the continent’s response to COVID-19, has been honing its response to disease outbreaks over the past decade. 

“To date, the entirety of Africa has seen just over 100,000 COVID-19 deaths, a fifth of the death toll of the United States, despite having more than three times the population,” the report notes. 

“While emerging variants in South Africa and elsewhere remain a threat, and Africa CDC warns against declaring victory too early, it is clear that the coordinated response spurred by Africa CDC has saved lives while better preparing the continent to address future outbreaks,” the report concludes.


Image Credits: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies / The Kenya Red Cross Society.

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