Ebola Outbreak Underscores Need for Stronger Frontline Health Workforce in West Africa

IntraHealth International commends the dedicated health workers who continue to provide care on the front lines of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. We also call on the world community to provide more systematic, sustained investment in frontline health workforces and health systems around the world.

Since March, Ebola virus has killed 932 people—including more than 60 health workers—in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, and now Nigeria. This outbreak is the largest ever recorded. Its size is due in part to weaknesses in the affected countries’ health systems and a lack of trust in the health workers who are struggling to combat the virus.

Health workers on the front lines of the Ebola crisis risk not only infection, but also denial, mistrust, and even violence from affected communities.

Rumors are rampant in some areas that the disease does not exist, or that it is in fact caused by health workers. Many hospitals are understaffed, understocked, or out of reach for rural communities. Fearful families often turn instead to traditional healers, who are largely unequipped to offer Ebola care and unprotected from the risks of infection.

Some families in affected countries have removed their sick loved ones from hospitals, breaching much-needed quarantines. Infection, fear, and attacks on health workers have hastened the spread of the disease as well, and damaged the countries’ abilities to curb the outbreak.

Long-term, sustainable solutions

While emergency aid is crucial, we also need long-term, sustainable solutions. Individual countries must be prepared to prevent, detect, and respond to emerging disease outbreaks. The World Health Organization’s International Health Regulations outline steps each country may take to maintain global health security, including disease surveillance and reporting, verification of public health events, and coordination of international response. 

“The ongoing Ebola crisis underscores the fact that we must continue to invest in a stronger global health system and health workforce in order to be prepared for crises such as this,” says Pape Gaye, president and CEO of IntraHealth International.

Health workers—including doctors, nurses, epidemiologists, and lab technicians—play a vital role in any robust health system and in its response to public health dangers.

“Our global health and development goals must include sustainable solutions, and that means greater focus on health workers,” Gaye says. “Frontline health workers in particular are part of the communities in which they serve. When they are trained and equipped to handle emerging issues—and when they are a part of the formal health systems of their countries—their clients have greater trust in them. Communities become stronger and more resilient in the face of emerging health threats.”

The health care needs surrounding Ebola will not end once the outbreak has been contained. Ebola survivors need care for the long-term health effects, including lifelong eye problems and arthritis-like joint and bone pain.

We commend the World Health Organization for its newly intensified response plan, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for its response, and the US Agency for International Development for coordinating the U.S. Government’s response to the Ebola outbreak.

We call on all countries to embrace the International Health Regulations and on donors to support those efforts.

And we call on the US government and our fellow nongovernmental organizations to lend greater support to the governments of affected countries as they struggle to care for their populations despite shortages of health workers and strained health systems.

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