Excellencies, distinguished guests, esteemed colleagues:
We cannot overstate the human cost of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa: the death, the fear, and the impact on local communities and on national health systems.
At a time when Ebola case numbers are notably lower, we—collectively—continue to fail patients and those who remain at risk of contracting the virus. The mortality rate in our treatment units is at a staggering 50 percent. This is unacceptable. A practical plan to sustain research for vaccines, treatments, and diagnostic tools must be developed. The outcome of this research belongs first and foremost to the affected communities, so we must ensure that results are geared primarily towards their benefit.
Fear has been a dominant factor in the Ebola epidemic. This is a normal reaction to an unprecedented and lethal outbreak. Yet, we must recognize that after a full year, community sensitization efforts have failed to counter misinformation. The level of response there requires urgent improvement. In some cases, Ebola is being used as a political instrument, contributing to confusion and mistrust among communities.
In Guinea, where misinformation and fear appear strongest, aid workers and medical teams are still suspected of introducing the virus to communities, and are violently attacked. And yet, we have seen in this same country that when people receive accurate information, they do build trust. However, coercive measures, such as armed escorts for outreach activities, which are being considered today in Guinea, will likely compound the fear and suspicion.
Ebola is not over until there are zero cases over a period of 42 days. One undetected case can lead to a surge. To reach zero, every single person who has been in contact with someone infected with Ebola must be identified. Yet, today there is still almost no cross-border information sharing on contact tracing. Surveillance teams lack basic resources for active case finding.
While we pursue zero cases, we also need to adapt to Ebola’s broader devastation by ensuring safe access to healthcare for non-Ebola cases. We must not overlook that Ebola has decimated the healthcare work force in the affected countries. The emergence of measles in Liberia underscores the immediate need to restore health systems and public confidence. Public health threats loom, perhaps even more devastating than Ebola.
Guineans, Sierra Leonians and Liberians continue to face the devastating direct and indirect consequences of Ebola. We should not declare an early victory. We cannot be satisfied and content. We must remain engaged, responsive, and determined.