At Dakar’s One Health conference, leaders pledged to act fast to detect, report and control the spread of diseases that often pass from animals to humans
Ebola claimed almost 4,000 lives in Sierra Leone. The country, along with Guinea and Liberia, lost a collective $2.8bn in GDP as a result of the outbreak. Photograph: Aurélie Marrier d’Unienville/AP
West African leaders have agreed a new approach to infectious diseases in an attempt to avert any repetition of the disastrous Ebola outbreak.
Human, animal and environmental health will all be considered together, and countries in the region will work collaboratively to catch outbreaks of diseases including avian flu, Zika and Ebola in their early stages.
About 75% of emerging infectious diseases in recent years have come from animals or animal products. The Ebola outbreak, which began nearly three years ago and killed 11,323 people, is thought to have started when a toddler in Guinea came into contact with fruit bats, possibly while playing in a bat-infested tree. Until then, the disease had only been seen in central Africa, and the response of the World Health Organisation, Britain, and the rest of the world was too slow, according to various reports.
Ministers from 16 west African countries pledged to carry out risk assessments, establish ways of raising the alarm when a disease breaks out, and improve their laboratories, at the One Health conference in Dakar.
“Disease outbreaks and public health crises – many of which began in animals – have taken lives and livelihoods, severely impacted our industries and economies, and taken a serious toll on our already-stretched public health workforces,” said Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organisation’s regional director for Africa.
“With so much at stake, the world simply cannot afford to take a crisis-by-crisis approach to health security. Strong systems and coordinated efforts are needed – both within and between countries – to detect, report and control the spread of diseases that affect animals and humans.”
Zuliatu Cooper, Sierra Leone’s deputy minister of health and sanitation, said that as long as her country could get the funding, the approach would be a game-changer.
“I just wish this was something we had done two or three years back,” Cooper said. “We need to keep it moving. Ebola destroyed our country and anything we can do to prevent not just Ebola but Zika, malaria … we are ready to do it.”
However, she did not think it would be easy to implement the approach immediately because of the difficulty in accessing money pledged by donors, such as funds to strengthen Sierra Leone’s two main laboratories.
Health officials in Sierra Leone check passengers crossing the border with Liberia to curb the spread of Ebola, March 2015. Photograph: Zoom Dosso/AFP/Getty Images
“Bureaucracy, I hope, goes away because it really did a lot of damage during the Ebola crisis,” she said. “When the funds are available, [donors] don’t deal directly with the ministries. Some donors want to go through implementing partners … that’s what causes the delay. And then we at the ministry have to start monitoring what those implementing partners are doing, and that causes other delays.
“The WHO works directly with the ministry, so projects that are funded through WHO move faster than [those] funded through a third party. That’s always the case. That is the problem.”
In May, the World Bank launched an emergency fund that will be released when future pandemics hit, but it is unclear whether the $500m (£400m) it could deploy would be enough to tackle an epidemic like Ebola.
The impact of infectious diseases go beyond calamitous death tolls: Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, among the world’s poorest countries, worst affected by the Ebola outbreak, lost a collective $2.8bn of GDP.
Cooper said her main worry was if Ebola came back, it would empty the government’s coffers, leaving nothing for the country’s other needs, such as education.
“If, God forbid, anything happens like a crisis now, within 24 hours, the human resources are there,” she said. “But what about the funding? That’s the gap.”