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Ghana, Kenya help battle spread of Ebola

By Philip Etyang | China Daily Africa | Updated: 2014-12-07 16:08

 Ghana, Kenya help battle spread of Ebola

A woman walks past an isolation ward set aside for Ebola-related cases at Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi. No cases had been reported in Kenya. Provided to China Daily

Countries considered more stable and better managed play key role in flight

When Shang Hao, then an intern at a local newspaper in Shenzhen, Guangdong province in South China, called me for an interview over the Ebola pandemic in West Africa in July, I was perplexed. First because I am from East Africa, not west, but most importantly I did not see any real threat of the virus to Kenya.

But we did the interview, which was meant to report on what the government in Nairobi was doing to avert the spread of the virus.

At the time I had just returned to Beijing from Nairobi aboard a Kenya Airways flight. During the trip, the flight attendants kept asking passengers if they were of sound health. I was sure at the time it was just common courtesy, a big part of their job. It did not occur to me that they were not taking any chances, and that their persistent questioning was meant to find anyone exposed to Ebola who might have been missed by other screening methods.

Without suspecting anything amiss, I affirmed my healthy status in Swahili to the slightly overzealous flight attendant in our cabin. Much later, it finally hit me when Kenya Airways issued a news release explaining the steps they were taking to limit the virus.

The experience made me think about the important role of African nations that are among the more stable and better-managed have in not only serving as role models but also in fighting the spread of deadly epidemics such as Ebola, which has mostly been limited to West Africa, mainly to three countries in that region.

Of nearly 7,000 who have died from Ebola in West Africa, 6,928 were in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, at the center of the outbreak, the World Health Organization said recently. Extreme poverty, very low public health spending, weak governance and, in Liberia and Sierra Leone, recent armed conflicts, have made them ill-equipped to handle Ebola.

Nigeria, which reported eight Ebola deaths, and Senegal, which saw only one case, recorded no new cases for 57 days and were declared Ebola-free, Agence France-Presse reported recently.

Other West African countries, including Mali, Chad, Ghana and Togo, are at risk.

Mali, the most recent country in the region to be hit by Ebola, had eight confirmed cases, six of which had proved fatal, WHO reported recently. The country said on Nov 28 that it had for the first time successfully treated an Ebola patient.

Ghana also has been at risk because of the bat-eating culture among Ghanaian communities, especially Techiman in the Brong Ahafo region. The fruit bat and the cave bat traditionally are served dried or with spicy hot soup.

While the movement of people across borders can be limited, that is not so with bats. Bats can also fly up to 321 km in a single night.

United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says the virus outbreak in West Africa was suspected to have started when it crossed over from infected wildlife to humans.

"Fruit bats are thought to be the most likely reservoir species for the virus, which they can carry without developing clinical signs of the disease", warned a statement from FAO. "Officials must make greater efforts to improve awareness among rural communities in West Africa about the risks of contracting the Ebola virus from eating certain wildlife species including fruit bats."

Ghana Health Services said earlier this year that some bats with Ebola antibodies were found at Techiman in the Brong-Ahafo region.

With the large numbers of bats in Ghana's capital, Accra, as well as Kumasi, the threat of the virus' spread has been real. The roof of a major hospital in Accra, the Military 37 Hospital, was infested with the flying mammals. Doctors and patients were forced to contend with the smell of urine and bat excrement that dotted the hospital floor.

Yet, Ghana was better prepared that some for the threat of Ebola. The country has largely escaped the civil strife that has struck some of its neighbors. As a BBC report noted, "A well-administered country by regional standards, Ghana is often seen as a model for political and economic reform in Africa."

In May, the Ghana Health Services cautioned the public about direct contact with the African fruit bat. The nation has played an integral part in trying to contain the virus to the hardest-hit countries.

At a July emergency meeting of regional health ministers in Accra, participants unanimously called for containment of the virus.

Health officials appealed to the leadership of John Dramani Mahama, the president of Ghana, also the president of the Economic Community of West African States, to mobilize financial resources to support communities and countries hit by the disease.

There was also consensus that challenges with financing, communication, cross-border collaboration and logistics posed a threat in addressing the pandemic and needed to be improved. Other areas cited as needing attention were case management, infection control, surveillance, contact tracing, community participation and research.

Kenya, which celebrated 50 years of independence last year, also is making contributions to the Ebola fight, even though the disease has not reached East Africa.

While the country also faces challenges, the World Bank recently noted that Kenya "has great potential from its growing and youthful population, a dynamic private sector, a new constitution, and its pivotal role in East Africa, to be one of Africa's success stories".

In October, the Kenya National Disaster Operation Centre announced that it had redoubled its efforts in preventing the spread of the virus in the country.

It noted in a statement: "Over the years, Kenya built its capacity to respond to threats caused by emerging infectious diseases such as Ebola."

Officials at the center announced that the Ministry of Health had established a disease surveillance/rapid response team and laboratory capacity to diagnose all hemorrhagic fevers including Ebola.

Earlier they had announced that strict screening booths had been set up at border points in the country as well as the International Arrivals terminus at the busy Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, to screen all passengers arriving into the country from West Africa.

The national air carrier, Kenya Airways, announced it had introduced a questionnaire regarding symptoms for all passengers to and from affected West African countries. As a major airline, its role in containing the virus has been essential.

Before putting a hold on flights to the affected West African states - a move that has seen a drop in its profit forecast for the last quarter - Kenya Airways was covering more than 65 destinations worldwide, including 35 in Africa. The airline also had been operating 44 flights every week from its hub at Jomo Kenyatta International to the three Ebola-affected West African countries.

Kenya Airways has greatly upgraded its fleet by purchasing more Boeing 777-300 and Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft. Its fleet renewal program has pushed Kenya Airways to the number one spot in the continent as the airline with the largest network in the Africa, as well as the youngest and most modern fleet.



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