With 18 Ebola cases reported, 14 confirmed, and four deaths to date, the West African nation of Guinea is becoming the focus of an urgent public health response involving national health authorities, local communities, the World Health Organization (WHO) and its partners. An Ebola vaccine has been deployed for the first time in the country, with more than 1,600 people vaccinated so far.
“We are using the ring vaccination,” said Dr. Ibrahima Socé Fall, the Assistant Director-General of WHO responsible for emergency response, referring to the strategy that inhibits the spread of a disease by vaccinating only those most likely to be infected. “We are vaccinating the contacts of cases, the contact of contacts, and their contacts. With this strategy we are able to control this type of outbreak. But we are going to need more vaccines.” Dr. Fall told journalist in Geneva on Friday.
Some 30,000 Ebola vaccines are currently available to Guinea, out of a global stock of half a million.
“If the outbreak spreads to other countries, we have limited stocks” said the Director of Strategic Health Operations at WHO, Dr. Michel Yao, speaking by videoconference from the town of Nzérékoré in Guinea, one of the epicentres of the outbreak, which is near the border with Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire.
The last Ebola outbreak in Guinea, which started in 2014, quickly spread to neighbouring Liberia and Sierra Leone. By the time it was finally brought under control, it had become the deadliest Ebola outbreak since the virus was first detected in 1976, with some 28,000 cases and 11,000 deaths.
“There are six neighboring countries to Guinea, and we conducted a self-assessment of readiness,” said Gueye Abdou Salam, Regional Emergency Director of WHO’s regional office for Africa, speaking by videoconference from Brazzaville. “Two of the countries are not ready, and one country is on the borderline and there are three countries that are more or less ready.”
Having faced previous Ebola outbreaks gives health authorities a considerable advantage this time around, experts agree. “It is important to learn the lessons from these outbreaks,” said Dr. Georges Alfred Ki-Zerbo, the WHO Representative in Guinea, referring to the need to get buy-in from local communities in all the areas where vaccination campaigns are planned.
“Where we launch the vaccination campaign in Gouecke, a few kilometers from there is the village of Wome. This is where a team of officials and responders were trapped and actually killed in the last outbreak in 2015. So, we need to take that into account when we engage with communities to make sure that we listen to them,” Dr. Ki-Zerbo said.
There is broad consensus among health officials the acting quickly is a crucial factor in controlling the spread of Ebola, but that preventive measures and better preparedness are also needed to protect people from a broader range of pathogens.
Dr. Fall took the view that the world will increasingly face a greater number of health epidemics, especially as human habitats encroach on forest areas.
“We are increasingly in a situation in which we have to face multiple epidemics,” Dr. Fall said, speaking to reporters in French. “Countries must be enabled to respond to multiple epidemics, but especially through preventive measures.”
One challenge, Dr. Fall said, is that the strong focus on the COVID-19 pandemic is making it more difficult to focus global attention on the tools needed to respond to any other emerging pathogens.