Ebola Outbreak in West Africa
Glenn Thomas, for World Health Organization (WHO), said a media advisory had been issued with information on a meeting taking place next week in Accra, Ghana on the ongoing Ebola virus outbreak. Mr. Thomas then introduced his colleague Dr Pierre Formenty, who could inform on the situation and the response to address the outbreak.
Dr Pierre Formenty, for World Health Organization (WHO), took questions from journalists. Responding to a question on whether the situation had ‘got out of hand’ Dr. Formenty replied that the situation was not out of hand, and a lot of work had been done in the three affected countries - Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia – to tackle the situation and stop the transmission of Ebola virus. WHO had been supporting the three countries and their Ministries of Health staff, and were working with them on a daily basis to try to contain the outbreak.
However, there were difficulties, notably in the forests of Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, in identifying cases, tracing the point of contact and delivering the message to the population about the infection, particularly during care at home and unsafe funerals, he said.
WHO would continue to deploy staff and to support the three countries. However, given the recent outbreak of the virus in Sierra Leone, and with people travelling to Liberia and elsewhere, WHO needed to address the possibility of continuous transmission between countries, so other West African border countries, such as Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Senegal and Guinea-Bissau and others, would be prepared in case people infected with the disease travelled to them, as seen in the last two months.
A second question was asked about the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) declaration earlier this week that the situation was out of control – what was the WHO point of view on that declaration? Dr. Formenty replied that he did not want to start an argument about vocabulary, although he understood MSF frustration, as he had himself worked in the field and could share some of them. WHO had been able to control the outbreak in different places, for example Télimélé and Dabola, whereas in other places it had been more difficult. There were places where WHO was not totally successful, but other places where it had been successful in stopping the chain of transmission.
Dr. Formenty added that to be effective, WHO had to continue a dialogue with the population, the affected families and the patients to make them understand the mode of transmission of the disease, and how to change their behaviour in order to stop the chain of transmission and the outbreak.
A journalist asked about risky behaviour, including certain burial practices. Furthermore, was WHO recommending any travel restrictions? Dr. Formenty replied that WHO was not advocating restrictions to stop people traveling from one place to another, but rather favoured dialogue with affected families, cities and districts rather than to be a sort of ‘sanitary police’ controlling any movement of the population. WHO along with the Member States affected by the outbreak were favouring dialogue and diplomacy, he emphasized.
Regarding dangerous behaviours such as burial practices, Dr. Formenty said he really understood and felt empathy for the families because of the importance of funerals in family life, and in West Africa in particular. WHO had not yet managed to explain to people the dangers to their lives in conducting an unsafe funeral during an Ebola outbreak, and it continued to work to rectify that, he said.
A journalist asked why it was so difficult to educate people about the dangers and whether WHO need a new strategy. Dr. Formenty replied that it was sometimes more efficient to concentrate on the right strategy rather than try to create a new one. During the first month of the outbreak, in March to April, the disease propagated because adequate control measures were not put in place. The current situation could be explained by that failure and must be rectified, while respecting people’s human rights. If restrictive measures were imposed, it would only fuel the outbreak, he said.
Regarding the possibility of the Ebola virus spreading, Dr. Formenty said that was a possibility, including via international travel, but it was difficult to control porous borders.
Finally, Dr. Formenty read out recent statistics, which were last updated yesterday. In Guinea, 386 cases had been reported, including 280 deaths. Sierra Leone had reported 176 cases including 78 deaths. Liberia had reported 63 cases including 41 deaths. Those figures were probably underestimates, he said, but World Health Organization hoped to have more precise statistics as it became more confident with the control operation in the field.