MONDAY June 17, 2019
By Joe Lihundi
Tranquility News Reporter, Arusha
Were East African Community (EAC) partner states immune to Ebola Virus outbreak? Not at all, officials say systems and procedures put in place across the region are actually helping to keep the pandemic and similar infectious diseases at bay.
Ebola is an infectious and often fatal disease marked by fever and severe internal bleeding, spread through contact with infected body fluids by a filovirus (Ebola virus), whose normal host species is unknown.
About 1,600 people have reportedly been infected by the persistent disease in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) that shares borders with East African countries, and about 1,000 of the patients have been declared dead.
The bloc comprises six members, namely Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.
The presence of the Ebola Virus in the DRC though is posing a big challenge to the East African region, a five-year-old boy with the first confirmed case of the Ebola Virus in Uganda was declared dead barely a week ago.
The child’s family had traveled to DRC to attend a funeral and returned home on June 9. He was taken to hospital after showing Ebola-like symptoms.
The child was receiving care at an Ebola treatment centre in Kasese near the western border with the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Dr Michael Katende, the Head of Health Department with the EAC Secretariat, attributes the low spillover of the fatal disease form DRC into the bloc to political stability the region has been enjoying in recent years.
Expansive tracts of rain forests habouring various organisms in the DRC are one of the reasons for zoonotic diseases being transmitted to people encroaching on the forests, Dr Katende says.
The EAC has in collaboration with DRC established cross-border systems and procedures for preventing the virus from spreading into the bloc, he explains.
“Links have been created among health workers operating in districts bordering DRC,” he says, explaining that political instability and burial traditions are to blame for the neighbouring country’s failure to contain the disease.
Civil wars are preventing health workers and other stakeholders from effectively responding to the outbreak of the disease itself and from mobilising the fleeing communities to refrain from adhering to their traditional practices when burying their beloved ones killed by Ebola.
“Ebola has been kept out of EAC not by luck; the region has learnt its lesson,” Dr Katende says ahead of a cross-border field simulation exercise carried out at the Kenya-Tanzania border post at Namanga a week ago.
Experience from about 500 East Africans deployed to West Africa to fight Ebola between 2014 and 2016 led to the involvement of the military, the public, religious leaders, the media and the civil society in preparedness and response measures, he says.
About 10,000 out of over 30,000 West Africans infected by Ebola died during the outbreak. “One of the lessons learnt was that all key players should be engaged right from the beginning,” he says.
With effect from June 11, 2019, the EAC Secretariat and partner states had in collaboration with GIZ and WHO selected a fictitious Rift Valley fever outbreak scenario that had the potential for threatening lives and livelihoods of East Africans during a four-day field simulation exercise.
The EAC Secretariat and partner states had through the exercise tested their contingency plans and related standard operating procedures as well as their regional risk and crisis communication strategy.
Dr Katende says One Health approach was applied in the field simulation exercise. One Health is a multi-sectoral and multi-disciplinary approach in the prevention and response to infectious disease outbreak, involving all affected professions and sectors and those which can mitigate its impact.
The approach involved at least 250 key players in responding to the fictitious outbreak during the Namanga field simulation exercise, including community leaders who mobilised people to screen and receive the required treatment.
Over 200 passengers crossing the Namanga One Stop Border Post daily panicked when they saw military personnel, ambulances and people in protective gear during the mock emergency operations.
Experts from Dar es Salaam, Dodoma, Arusha, Nairobi, and Kajiado and Longido districts participated in the exercise from their own working places.
“Jomo Kenyatta and Kilimanjaro international airports also tested their small defined role in preparedness and response that did not disturb their routines and had largely gone unnoticed by travellers,” Dr Katende says.
The bloc had also tested the ability of the EAC Network of Public Health Reference Laboratories for Communicable Diseases project to react quickly to an outbreak. The German Development Bank financed the mobile laboratories.
Ms Irene Lukassowitz, the GIZ-EAC manager for pandemic preparedness, says the German government had spent about $1 million in the field simulation exercise.
High risk of Ebola spreading from DRC into the region prompted the EAC Council of Ministers to direct the Secretariat to assess the preparedness of the bloc for responding to an outbreak of the disease.
“This has helped us to identify areas in which we’re weak in our response mechanism to such outbreaks,” Dr Katende says.
“The field simulation exercise tested systems and procedures, did not point a finger at an individual,” stresses the WHO representative, Mr Allan Bell, explaining that evaluation of the exercise shown gaps to be filled immediately after the exercise.