This Is How the British Public Helped Stop the Spread of Ebola
The Democratic Republic of Congo is officially free of the disease.
This week, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has officially been declared free of Ebola — in a massive victory for global health.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared that the life-threatening disease is no longer an active threat in the country, thanks to what WHO director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described as the “tireless efforts” of health workers — both local and international.
When Ebola swept through West Africa in 2014 and 2015, it cost the lives of over 11,300 people, and nearly 30,000 people were infected.
So, in early May, when another outbreak was identified in the DRC, the race was on to stop reaching those catastrophic proportions.
And the UK played a vital role in the international effort, alongside the heroic efforts of local health workers, as one of the principal donors of international funding.
“The UK’s swift and robust response to the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo helped to stop it spreading to neighbouring countries, and ultimately to the UK,” said Penny Mordaunt, the UK’s international development secretary.
Ebola is infectious and can spread rapidly through contact with even small amounts of bodily fluid, and its early flu-like symptoms aren’t always obvious. It causes internal bleeding and can often be fatal.
It also has absolutely no regard for country borders.
“Our response shows how seriously we take such health threats around the world,” added Mordaunt. “UK aid support and expertise were key to containing this deadly outbreak, helping to prevent a repeat of the widespread death toll from the 2014-15 West Africa epidemic.”
“Our contributions are helping to limit the spread of Ebola and other deadly diseases, making the world — including the UK — a safer place,” she said.
As the quick-spreading disease moved from the countryside into cities during May, fears were sparked that it was potentially taking hold in the country it what could have been a repeat of the 2014-15 outbreak.
But, this time, the initial response was quicker and it was more assertive. The situation was better monitored, and humanitarian workers were able to reach the remote villages affected more quickly.
British health workers were some of the first on the ground, and a Public Health Rapid Response Team — made up of two epidemiologists and a data scientist — was deployed in late May. They worked in a remote area of the rainforest, helping develop an alert system for early warning of possible cases, helping train and supervise field teams, and helping track the spread of Ebola.
One of their most important roles, however, was in helping local health workers to better protect themselves against the disease in the future.
“This is a key point about international development,” according to Tooting MP and humanitarian aid doctor Rosena Allin-Khan and Stephen Crabb, MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire, in an article written for the Times.
“By building local capacity, and through continuous learning, we are better equipped for health emergencies than ever before,” they wrote. “In few other sectors is this iterative process literally life-saving.”
British science and research is also “at the forefront” of the efforts combatting Ebola, according to the article.
The UK launched an aid-backed vaccination campaign in the country, alongside Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the DRC government, the WHO, and Médecins Sans Frontières, to directly hinder the spread of the disease.
And it also helped develop an Ebola vaccine to protect the most vulnerable people — which the DRC’s health minister, Oly Ilunga Kalenga, described as a “game changer.” Not one of the cases of Ebola occurred in someone who’d been vaccinated.
“In helping to tackle the DRC’s Ebola outbreak, UK aid has not just responded to immediate need, but supported solutions to solve the problem for good, helping to prevent it from reaching our shores too,” continued Allin-Khan and Crabb.
“The UK has a long and proud tradition of supporting global health,” they wrote. “Whether it is providing life-saving care to individuals without the means to buy basic medical supplies themselves, or inoculating people against diseases that are practically non-existent here at home, the impact of our work overseas is real.”
“In short, aid works,” they add. “That we are at the centre of this global effort — not just for this specific crisis, but so many global health challenges — is something we can all really be proud of.”
The focus of UK aid will now move towards preventing future outbreaks.
“Investing in health systems is important and good value for money, because it enhances the world’s ability to prevent epidemics, rather than reacting to future crises,” according to a DfID spokesperson. “Evidence suggests that, for every £1 invested in preparation, a £2 return can be achieved in terms of savings on future spending and investments.”