The World Heath Organization (WHO) on Thursday called for “drastic action” in order to fight the deadliest Ebola outbreak on record, and announced an 11-nation meeting to address the growing crisis.
As of Sunday 22 June, 635 cases of hemorrhagic fever, most confirmed to be Ebola, including 399 deaths, have been reported across Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. This effectively makes the outbreak the largest ever “in terms of the number of cases and deaths as well as geographical spread.” A statement released by the UN agency stressed that “drastic action is needed,” and warned of the danger that the virus could jump to other countries. The WHO’s call for drastic action comes just days after medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) indicated that the virus was now “out of control.’
Since the deadly epidemic emerged in Guinea in January, WHO has deployed more than 150 experts in a bid to tackle the crisis. However despite its efforts, and the efforts of other medical charities, over the past three weeks there has been a “significant increase” in the number of cases and deaths reported each day. According to WHO’s regional director for Africa, Dr Luis Sambo, the agency is now “gravely concerned by the on-going cross-border transmission into neighboring countries as well as the potential for further international spread,” adding “this is no longer a country specific outbreak but a sub-regional crisis that requires firm action by governments and partners.”
WHO’s top Ebola specials Pierre Formenty warned last week that the recent surge in cases had likely come in part because efforts to contain the virus had been relaxed too quickly after the outbreak appeared to have slowed down in April. In order to address the on going crisis, officials at the WHO announced Thursday that they will convene a meeting of the health ministers from 11 countries in Accra, Ghana on July 2 – 3 in order “to discuss the best way of tackling the crisis collectively as well as develop a comprehensive inter-country operation response plan.” Ministers from Guinea, where nearly 400 confirmed, suspected and probably cases have surfaced so far, including 280 deaths; and Liberia, which has 63 cases and 41 deaths, will take part in the meeting. Ministers from Sierra Leone will also be present. Additionally, neighboring countries, including Gambia, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Ivory Coast, Mali and Senegal, and countries as far afield as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda have also been invited. The meeting will also include a range of UN agencies and other aid organizations including MSF and the Red Cross as well as the Western African, British, EU and US centers for disease control.
Meanwhile on Wednesday, officials from the WHO announced that, at the request of the Sierra Leonean government, they were changing the way it reports fatalities from the Ebola outbreak in the country.
Previously, probable and suspected deaths from Ebola were included in the count however from now on, only laboratory confirmed cases will be reported. Therefore this reduces the death toll in Sierra Leone from 58 to 34 as of 24 June 2014. According to WHO spokeswoman Fadel Chaib, the way that deaths are reported in Guinea and Liberia, which are the other two countries affected by the deadly outbreak, will remain unchanged.
The change comes after Sierra Leone’s press had criticized the government for reporting lower death rates than those reported by the WHO. The changes however now bring the WHO figures inline with those released by the Sierra Leone government. The latest Ebola outbreak has now been named by international organizations as the worst Ebola epidemic ever with 635 cases and 399 fatalities occurring in dozens of sites across the three countries, including in major cities and remote areas. Officials from Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have described the outbreak as “out of control,” adding that it had reports of cases in more than 60 sites and that its resources were now stretched to the limit. In light of the on going outbreak, which has worsened in recent weeks, the European Commission announced Tuesday that it was committing an additional 500,000 euros in funding in order to combat the outbreak. This latest funding brings its total contribution to 1.9 million euros.
The first cases of the Ebola virus have been confirmed in Liberia, after spreading from neighboring Guinea, where the deadly virus has already killed eighty-four people. Meanwhile in Mali, officials are on high alert after three suspected cases were reported near the border area with Guinea.
Fears Virus Has Spread to Mali
Officials in Mali on Thursday indicated that they had detected three suspected victims of the Ebola virus, the deadly disease that has killed 84 people in Guinea. Speaking to reporters in Bamako, Mali’s Health Minister Ousmane Kone stated that “three suspected cases of hemorrhagic fever have been detected in the country. Samples have been taken and sent abroad for analysis.” The Health Minister added that pending results from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where the samples were sent, the patients were isolated and were receiving appropriate medication. A statement issued by the government has indicated that the patients’ condition was currently improving and that the results of the tests will be made public as soon as they are known.
Ebola Outbreak Confirmed in Liberia
Seven new patients has brought the total suspected Ebola cases in Liberia to fourteen. Since reporting its first case of the hemorrhagic fever last month, six people have died, however officials in Liberia indicated Thursday that the first suspected Ebola case is now thought to be unconnected to the ongoing epidemic in neighboring Guinea, noting that the case may have originated separately within its borders.
According to Liberia’s chief medical officer Bernice Dahn, “we have a case in Tapeta where a hunter who has not had any contact with anyone coming from Guinea got sick,” adding “he was rushed to the hospital and died 30 minutes later. He never had any interaction with someone suspected to be a carrier of the virus and he has never gone to Guinea. This is an isolated case.” If confirmed, the case in the eastern town of Tapeta would mark a worrying development in the fight against Ebola, as cases so far have been attributed to people returning with the infection from neighboring Guinea, where 84 people have died. Tapeta, a small town in the eastern country of Nimba, is located 400 kilometers (250 miles) from the epicenter of the Ebola outbreak in southern Guinea. It is also at least a five-hour drive and much further from the border than other suspected cases.
Of the six deaths, two were laboratory-confirmed Ebola cases – a woman who died in hospital in the northern county of Lofa and her sister who visited her. The sister was allowed to return home to Monrovia before being hospitalized in the nearby Firestone Hospital. Local authorities had isolated her and were monitoring her, her family and others with whom she may have had contact however Mr Dahn has since indicated that “…after being confirmed Ebola virus positive, the lady died this morning.” He added that “we are now keeping surveillance on 44 people who have been in contact with the cases reported.” The fruit bat, which is thought to be the host of the highly contagious Ebola virus, is a delicacy in the region that straddles Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, with experts suspecting huntsmen to be the source of the outbreak.
The outbreak in Guinea had initially centered in the country’s remote south-eastern Forest Region of Nzerekore, where it took officials six weeks to identify the disease, effectively allowing it to spread over the borders and into the more populous regions of the country. The first symptoms experienced were of a feverish sickness and they were observed on February 9. The mysterious disease claimed at least 23 lives, out of a total of 36, before officials were able to identify it. Since then, the outbreak has continued to spread, with officials confirming last week that it had spread to the capital, Conakry, which is a sprawling city of two million.
On Sunday, Guinea’s Health Ministry indicated that the country was now dealing with 122 “suspicious cases” of viral hemorrhagic fever, including at least 80 deaths. However not all of the cases have been confirmed as the Ebola virus. Medical Charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has since stated that the Ebola outbreak in Guinea is “unprecedented,” adding that the spread of the disease across the country made it very difficult to control. Guinea is now facing a battle to contain the outbreak after cases were reported in areas that are hundreds of kilometers apart.
Over the past weekend, there has been a growing concern that the outbreak of the deadly virus may spread throughout West Africa. According to Tarik Jasarevic, spokesman for the WHO, up to 400 people are identified as potential Ebola contacts in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Fears of the virus spreading further into West Africa prompted officials in Senegal to close the country’s normally busy border with Guinea. Senegal’s Health Minister Awa Maria Coll-Seck confirmed Monday that the government had decided to close its border with Guinea after receiving confirmation that the virus had reached the country’s capital city Conakry. According to Ms Coll-Seck, Senegal has also “…closed all weekly markets, known as luma, in the south. And we’re having some discussions with religious leaders regarding big religious events.”
Officials in Sierra Leone also reported last week some suspected cases of the Ebola virus however these have not yet been confirmed.
The Ebola virus, which is one of the world’s most virulent diseases, was first discovered in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 1976. The DRC has since had eight outbreaks of the disease, with the most recent epidemic, which occurred in the DRC between May and November 2012, infecting 62 people and leaving 34 dead. Although there have been previous outbreaks amongst humans in Uganda, the Republic of Congo and Gabon, the disease had never before been detected in people in West Africa. There have also been fears that the disease could one day be used in a biological weapons attack as, according to researches, the virus multiplies quickly, overwhelming the immune system’s ability to fight the infection.
If all cases in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Mali and Liberia are confirmed to be Ebola, this outbreak would be the most deadly epidemic since 187 people died in Luebo, in the Congo’s Kasai Orientale province in 2007.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), to date, no treatment or vaccine is available for Ebola, which kills between 25 and 90 percent of those who fall sick, depending on the strain of the virus. The Zaire strain of Ebola, which has a 90 percent death rate, is the one that has been detected in Guinea.
Nearly one year into its mandate, the internationally-backed government in Somalia continues to struggle as it’s first anniversary in power approaches. Al-Qaeda-inspired fighters, breakaway regions, coupled with rival clans and an ongoing climate of insecurity are the continuing threats that are jeopardizing the current government’s initiatives of concluding decades of anarchy. Although the current government was the first to attain global recognition since the collapse of the hardline regime in 1991, and has since seen billions in foreign aid being poured into the country, officials within the country have struggled to maintain security. Somalia has taken steps forward, particularly in the coastal capital city of Mogadishu, which is now busy with laborers rebuilding after al-Shabaab fighters fled their city two years ago. However the situation throughout the rest of the country continues to remain bleak. Outside the city, the weak central government continues to maintain minimal influence as much of the country is fractured into autonomous regions, including the self-declared northern Somaliland. Earlier this month, the northeast region of Puntland cut ties with the central government while in the far south, self-declared leaders in the Jubbaland region continue to defy Mogadishu’s authorities. In turn, multiple armies are fighting for control of southern Somalia, including rival warlords, Islamist extremists and a national army that is backed by the 17,700-strong African Union (AU) force. Al-Shabaab too remain powerful, despite losing a string of key towns and leaders, the terrorist group continues to carry out attacks. A suicide attack on a UN compound in June of this year demonstrated al-Shabaab’s ability to strike at the heart of the capital’s most secure areas. Last month, a report released by the UN Monitoring Group estimated that al-Shabaab still have some 5,000 militants within its group and that they remain the “principal threat to peace and security in Somalia.” Aid workers are struggling to contain a dangerous outbreak of polio, with the UN warning that while more than one hundred cases have been recorded, there are “probably thousands more with the virus.” Compounding the problem is an almost impossible environment for aid workers. In a major blow this month, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), an aid agency used to working in the world’s most dangerous places, pulled out of Somalia after two decades of providing aid in the country. The agency cited that it could no longer put up with a “barrage of attacks,” including kidnappings, threats, lootings and murder. Over a million Somalis are refugees in surrounding nations and another million are displaced inside the country, often in terrible conditions, with the UN warning of “pervasive” sexual violence.
Two Spanish aid workers, who were kidnapped in Kenya nearly two years ago and held in neighbouring Somalia, have been freed according to their employer.
In a statement that was released by Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), the organization confirmed that the two women are both “safe and healthy and keen to join their loved ones as soon as possible….Once again, MSF strongly condemns this attack on humanitarian workers who were in Dadaab offering life saving medical assistance to thousands of refugees.” MSF indicated that it would give any further details before a press conference which has been scheduled in Madrid on Friday.
Montserrat Serra (40) and Blanca Thiebaut (30) were kidnapped on 13 October 2011 by gunmen who opened fire on their vehicle inside the Dadaab refugee camp complex. Their Kenyan driver was shot and wounded. At the time of the kidnapping, Kenyan police had stated that they had been seized by members of Somalia’s Islamist al-Shabaab group, however no group has actually claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. Just days later, Kenya deployed its troops into neighbouring Somalia in order to fight al-Shabaab militants.
Dadaab, said to be the world’s largest refugee camp, houses some 500,000 people who have fled years of conflict and drought across the border in Somalia. MSF, which at the time of the kidnapping had 49 foreign and 343 local staff in Dadaab, has since reduced its activity there to a minimum. Both women were working as logisticians for MSF in Dadaab. Ms. Serra, a qualified teacher from Girona, Spain, had been working in Kenya for two months before she was kidnapped. She had previously worked on aid projects in Latin America and Yemen. Ms. Thiebaut, from Madrid, had recently completed a degree at the London School of Economics and is an agricultural engineer by training.
The abduction of the Spaniards followed the kidnapping of a French woman and a British woman from the Kenyan coast near the Somali border. Briton Judith Tebbut, in her late fifties, was seized from a remote Kenyan resort on 11 September 2011, by armed men who killed her husband David. She was released in March 2012 after being held for more than six months. A ransom was reportedly paid by her son. Marie Dedieu, 66 and partially paralyzed, was seized from her beachfront home in the Lamu archipelago on 1 October 2011. She was reported dead later that month, with French officials stating that the death was probably due to her having been deprived of essential medication by her kidnappers. On 25 October 2011, two aid workers with the Danish Refugee Council were seized by armed men in Galkayo in north-central Somalia. They were freed during a raid that was launched by US Commandos in January 2012. Meanwhile in January of this year, al-Shabaab fighters killed a French hostage, an intelligence agent known under the pseudonym Denis Allex who was held since 2009, during a botched rescue attempt by French forces. A colleague of Mr. Allex, who was kidnapped at the same time, managed to escape in August 2009. A Briton and Kenyan, who were employed by an Indian subcontractor of a UN agency and who were kidnapped in southern Somalia in 2008, are feared dead. While an American national kidnapped in January 2012 is still being held.
Meanwhile thirty-nine seamen of various nationalities from the Naham 3, a fishing vessel that was captured in March 2012, along with crew members from two other boats, are still being held in Somalia. The fate of a further fifteen crew members, whose vessel, the MV Albedo, sunk early last week, remains unknown.