(Editor's Note: The following op-ed originally appeared in The Huffington Post on October 16, 2014)
As the Ebola crisis continues to grow – with the death toll surpassing that of previous outbreaks combined – the international community seeks to fill critical needs and bolster the health systems in West Africa. At the 2014 Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting, CGI members committed to responding to the outbreak, beginning work immediately with two separate airlifts of medical supplies from New York City to West Africa. Simultaneously, members met with local and international experts and officials to strategize on how to coordinate their response. The following film tells the story of this initial response.
The Ebola outbreak currently devastating West Africa threatens the lives of not just those infected with the virus, but all who require medical care, whether treatment for malaria or prenatal care for a healthy pregnancy. As we saw during our recent trip to Monrovia and rural Liberia, as weakened health systems are overwhelmed, and health workers without access to adequate personal protective equipment perish, hard-won health gains in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea could be reversed.
Stopping Ebola will require staff, stuff, systems, and space. Our emergency response must be closely linked to strengthening health systems in the most affected countries, so the next disease outbreak can be quickly contained – and the ongoing epidemic of preventable deaths from treatable diseases, complications of pregnancy, and lack of access to surgical services can be addressed. Mounting an adequate response – including finding the new tools we'll need to defeat Ebola, like better diagnostics and therapeutics, and an effective vaccine – will require broad partnerships among public and private actors, and close collaborations across disciplines, organizations, and countries.
Three weeks ago at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting, Chelsea Clinton announced a newly formed coalition among Partners In Health, Last Mile Health and Wellbody Alliance. Together, our organizations are committed to addressing the Ebola outbreak in rural Liberia and Sierra Leone, and to strengthening the health systems there. We will work hand-in-hand with local governments and Ministries of Health, helping to ensure that the investments made in fighting Ebola will translate into long-term health gains. We will establish Ebola Treatment Units to address the critical lack of adequate beds for Ebola treatment – currently, less than 20 percent of the needed beds are available in Liberia – and help to train, equip, and support local staff.
At CGI, our organizations – Last Mile Health, in Liberia, and Wellbody Alliance, in Sierra Leone, two organizations deeply rooted in their respective countries – and Partners In Health, with deep experience in rural health care delivery and in strengthening health systems together committed to:
- Train, equip and support 800 community health workers to carry out community-based education, prevention, case detection, contact tracing and essential health services in 500 villages.
- Train, equip and support 500 health workers across 47 primary health centers and establish four Ebola Treatment Centers.
- Establish a national training center in Bong County and provide technical assistance to the Ministry of Health to support coordination and health systems strengthening efforts.
- Support the creation of best practices for a regional technical Ebola treatment and care task force convened by the World Bank.
This epidemic of Ebola was preventable. Ebola started in the rainforest, and it could have been stopped there if a strong healthcare system had been in place. Instead, its rapid and deadly progression was enabled by underdeveloped and underfunded health systems ill-equipped to identify, contain and combat major health threats. It's no accident that Liberia was hardest hit: it only receives 3 percent of its development assistance through national institutions.
Ebola does not need to be a death sentence. With the right staff, stuff, systems, and space to provide high-quality treatment and care, mortality rates can be dramatically reduced and risks to health care workers and family members of patients, those most vulnerable to exposure, can also be diminished.
We're encouraged by the commitment, compassion, and solidarity of the many people and organizations determined to end the scourge of Ebola and address the long-standing inequalities it represents. Working in partnership, we can ensure that our response to Ebola serves not only to protect lives now, but to strengthen health systems in affected countries for the long term.
This post is part of a special series produced by The Huffington Post in recognition of the threats posed by Ebola, particularly to West Africa. To see all the posts in the series, read here.