The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the Ebola outbreak “the greatest peacetime challenge the United Nations and its agencies have ever faced”
On Sept. 15, Canada’s Public Health Agency announced the government will donate $2.5 million in medical equipment to doctors and nurses fighting the spread of Ebola in West Africa. The government has asked the World Health Organization (WHO) to distribute the supplies. The decision follows a recent WHO report citing severe shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline healthcare workers, particularly in countries like Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the countries hit the hardest by the virus.
“Preventing further transmission of the Ebola virus is essential to controlling the current outbreak and the proper use of personal protective equipment is a key component,” said Dr. Gregory Taylor, Canada’s Deputy Chief Public Health Officer.
The donations will include 2.1 million face shields, 1.5 million examination gloves, 1.25 million full-body gowns, 500,000 respirator masks, 3,500 surgical gloves, and 50 hooded coverall suits. The equipment is being taken from surplus stock available through Canada’s National Emergency Strategic Stockpile and Health Canada’s First Nations and Inuit Health Branch. Last month the government also sent Sierra Leone a rapid testing mobile lab as well as donating 800-1000 doses of a Canadian-made experimental vaccine known as VSV-EBOV or ‘Vesicular Stomatitis Virus-based vaccine for the Ebola virus.’
“Our government is committed to doing everything we can to support our international partners, including providing staff to assist with the outbreak response, funding and access to our experimental vaccine,” Health Minister Rona Ambrose said.
In total, the government has contributed just over $5 million in humanitarian assistance to West African countries affected by the virus. However, in light of the severity of the virus, many are asking if Canada’s contribution is enough? On Sept. 18, the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr. Margaret Chan, delivered an address to the UN Security Council on the seriousness of the Ebola virus. The “WHO has successfully managed many big outbreaks in recent years,” Dr. Chan said. “But this Ebola event is different; very different. This is likely the greatest peacetime challenge the United Nations and its agencies have ever faced.” “None of us experienced in containing outbreaks has ever seen, in our lifetimes, an emergency on this scale, with this degree of suffering, and with this magnitude of cascading consequences,” she said.
According to the most recent estimates, the virus has infected nearly 5,400 people and killed more than 2,600, a mortality rate close to 50 per cent of infected victims. And these, the WHO says, are conservative estimates. Although the vast majority of infections have occurred in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, 8 deaths have also been recorded in Nigeria and one death in Senegal.
Because the outbreak is so aggressive, it’s already beginning to have an impact on the fragile economy of West Africa. Liberia’s most fertile farm land, for example, Lofa Country, is now fallow because of the death toll among local farmers, raising fears of a hunger crisis, mass migrations across porous borders and civil unrest.
“This is not just an outbreak. This is not just a public health crisis. This is a social crisis, a humanitarian crisis, an economic crisis, and a threat to national security well beyond the outbreak zones,” Dr. Chan said. On Sept. 16, President Barack Obama announced the U.S. will deploy 3,000 soldiers to help healthcare workers in the affected countries. The United Kingdom has also deployed military personnel to West Africa to assist the WHO and other frontline organizations desperately short of hospital space, beds, medical equipment and other supplies.
Canada’s recent donations of personal protective equipment is badly needed, but what really matters in combatting outbreaks of this magnitude are the experts and healthcare workers on the ground. The WHO has said it is still severely understaffed to effectively cope with this crisis. “It is not enough to provide protective clothing when you don’t have the people who will wear them,” Ghana’s President John Dramani Mahama said during a visit to Sierra Leone. At present, the government has not made public any considerations of increasing the number of healthcare workers in the region or if the military will be authorized to assist the WHO in West Africa to fight Ebola.