Health personnel are critical to stemming the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, but the region remains sorely lacking in qualified professionals, a deficit the African Union is trying to address by calling on member states to send medical practitioners to the worst-hit countries.
The decision came after an unprecedented number of doctors and nurses had fallen victim to the virus and several public health workers abandoned their posts or protested the lack of support. More than 120 medical workers have died since March, including some of the affected countries’ top doctors and one international worker. But as the disease spread further, agencies like Médecins Sans Frontières, which has been leading the response, has admitted it is being stretched in its capacity
Volunteers and health workers gear up to fight the
spread of Ebola in Kailahun, Sierra Leon
In response to the growing epidemic and need for more human resources working the front lines, the AU’s Peace and Security Council invoked Article 6(f) of its mandate in mid-August, authorizing the “immediate” deployment of military and civilian humanitarian missions to the affected countries. The crisis has now spread to six countries, the latest being Senegal. The World Health Organization said the virus found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is of a different strain and likely did not come from the Ebola-infected countries.
The AU’s initiative, Operation African Union Support to Ebola Outbreak or ASEOWA, has already deployed a team of civilian and military medical personnel to assess the situation on the ground and identify where more support is needed. It then hopes to follow with the deployment of medical doctors composed of physicians, general practitioners, epidemiologists, professional nurses and public health officers.
“Member States will send volunteers to the African Union Commission for pre-deployment training and the Commission will manage the whole deployment process,” Tawanda Chisango, program advocacy and partnership expert at the AU Commission, told Devex.
The AU is also looking for volunteer social workers, assistant pharmacists, laboratory technicians and medical data management experts “preferably with experience in managing infectious diseases.” Although they would not be expected to deal directly with infected patients, they are needed to help in areas such as contact tracing, which is critical to stop the further spread of the virus. Data management experts will also be crucial in the full implementation of the WHO’s Ebola response road map launched last week.
Recruitment for these volunteers is expected to run for six months. The volunteers, however, will likely serve on a monthly rotation as prolonged exposure can increase the risk of contracting the virus. As Francis Kasolo, who helps manage WHO’s regional coordination center in Conakry, Guinea, told Devex in July, health workers need to work in shifts to reduce their vulnerability to infection.
The first team of volunteers is already on standby; they are expected to be deployed no later than Sept. 10.
The initiative, whose operations will likely be jumpstarted early this month, is estimated to cost $25 million. The U.S. government and other partners have already pledged to support “a substantial part of the amount,” Chisango said.
While the call for volunteers is only for AU member countries, interested volunteers from outside the region may express their interest to WHO and other agencies responding to the outbreak.
Road map is good, but questions remain
Last week, WHO underscored the importance of addressing the human resource gap to fully operationalize the road map. It highlighted the need for governments to have a comprehensive remuneration package for health personnel, which it says should include not just salary and hazard pay, but also insurance or death benefits, “where appropriate.”
The agency also underscored the need to accelerate training for each health worker, including cleaners and those in charge of burials, and emphasized access to sufficient quantities of protective equipment. For international staff, WHO said it will establish a specific program to identify, train and deploy them to Ebola treatment centers, referrals and isolation facilities.
While the road map is a welcome development, MSF Director of Operation Brice de le Vingne said the plan needs to go beyond what has been outlined.
“Huge questions remain about who will implement the elements in the plan: Who has the correct training for the variety of tasks that are detailed, how long will it take to train organizations to set up and run an Ebola management center, how long before any new centers become operational, who will undertake the vitally important health education, contact tracing and safe burials work in the affected communities,” he said in response to the road map.
De le Vingne admitted that a number of actors are currently facing severe capacity constraints and unable to expand their response, but he argued there are others who can still scale up effective activities. For instance, de la Vingne said unaffected states that have the capacity “have the responsibility to mobilize resources to the affected countries, rather than watching from the sidelines with a naive hope that the situation will improve.”