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The need to adequately equip Africa’s health facilities in order to deal with deadly epidemics was a key subject at the first Baobab Forum held at the African Development Bank headquarters in Abidjan on August 31.
The ill state of health infrastructure in Guinea, where the first case in the latest Ebola outbreak was detected in December 2013, was responsible for the rapid spread of the disease, said Dr. Elhadj Ibrahima Bah, a supervisor at the Ebola Treatment Centre in Donka Hospital in Guinea-Conakry. “Our health facilities must be prepared with surveillance systems to track any diseases. We did not have equipment, we all know our health facilities are weak and fragile,” said Bah. He added that “staff were not ready for the situation, no one was ready to tackle it.”
Bah recalled how people deserted hospitals and went home, fueling the rapid spread of the virus. To deal with the situation, he together with two of his colleagues started treating people, with little information about the disease. One of them succumbed to the disease. Bah said he was lucky to be alive even though he came into close contact with the departed colleague; nursing him, sharing the same food, and even burying him.
This brought to the fore the lack of capacity of medical personnel, an issue which was widely discussed during the Baobab Forum. “We have no specialist at any of our health facilities. You will just see a faceless young person who is out to risk his life in the process of saving patients. I myself am just a GP [General Practitioner]. We need to help our young people to move forward and study,” Bah emphasised.
The same was reiterated by Dr. Olajide Idris, former Commissioner for Health in Lagos State, Nigeria, who asserted the necessity of offering training to health-care providers in order to achieve success in fighting epidemics. “We must look at the capacity of our clinical officers. In our case, we trained people on-site, including volunteers, on how to handle those affected. We collaborated with CDC [Center for Disease Control and Prevention] and WHO [World Health Organization]. A lot of the protocols we used were from these organisations,” said Idris.
Lagos, a city with a population of 22 million, experienced eight Ebola deaths, according to Idris. He attributes the effective management of the disease to availability of existing institutions, political will from government, and international partners. “We had some institutions in place – an infectious disease hospital, ambulances, disease surveillance unit. International partners came in with their knowledge base, and there was no politics, we all addressed a common enemy.”
The forum underscored the importance of having health-care systems that are not only curative but preventive. And for this to happen, the health sector should be funded adequately. “In Africa, the health-care system is underfunded. Fifteen percent of our annual budgets should go to health,” said Idris. According to the United Nations, most Africa nations are underspending on health, far below the 15 percent agreed upon in the Abuja Declaration of 2001.
Pedro Verona Pires, former President of Cape Verde, one of the speakers at the event, stressed the value of building strong institutions that are able to address any challenges regarding health. “That is the weak link our chain,” he said.
Idris could not agree more. “We need to strengthen our health infrastructure. Whether we like it or not, we are going to have epidemics, and a threat to Africa is a threat to any part of the world.”