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Aid agencies urged to sustain Ebola data advances

Copyright: Espen Rasmussen/Panos

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  • Early warning and data gathering systems created from scratch

  • Doubts raised that these will be maintained or improved

  • Research cited as possible distraction in outbreak response

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International aid teams must do more to maintain improvements in health data collection and early warning systems following the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, a conference has heard.

Strides made in building systems to collect data on infectious diseases and track outbreaks will only endure with long-term commitment, said Athalia Christie, the deputy for global health at the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She told a panel that such systems had to be created from scratch in Ebola-affected countries.

“I think for any other outbreak, we’d be much more prepared.”

Brigitte Dacosta, bioMérieux

“I’m extremely concerned, even after a year-plus of this activity, that this is something we’re going to be able to maintain and, frankly, build upon,” Christie said on 10 September at the Global Disaster Relief Summit 2015 in Washington D.C., United States. “Every piece of the chain needs work.”

Christie mentioned challenges related to standardising data collection, doing biomedical research, maintaining health information systems and setting up emergency operations. Maintaining momentum in these areas will be especially important as Ebola-affected nations such as Liberia now try to focus health efforts on other diseases, such as malaria and measles, she said.

The Ebola outbreak has killed more than 11,000 people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and brought an international response to prop up local health systems. In July, the United States announced US$1 billion for its Global Health Security Agenda, more than half of which will go to African countries, including those affected by Ebola, to prevent future infectious disease outbreaks in 17 countries.

The lack of health infrastructure in Ebola-hit countries also caused problems for private companies, the Washington event heard. For example, French microbiology testing firm bioMérieux struggled to train health workers to use its diagnostics and found it difficult to transport laboratory equipment, the conference heard.

But Brigitte Dacosta, the firm’s director of public health, said the outbreak taught the company valuable lessons. “I think for any other outbreak, we’d be much more prepared,” she said.

Both Dacosta and Christie agreed that sustained data collection and tracking efforts would also help aid organisations and firms deal with the ethical hurdles related to treating previously unknown diseases. Dacosta said her team struggled to get approvals for new treatment methods from the World Health Organization due to a lack of available data.

Christie said research efforts might have distracted aid organisations and health carers from treating the sick. She noted that far less research was done in Liberia than in Guinea and Sierra Leone, and that Liberia was the first country to be temporarily declared Ebola-free.

Guinea and Sierra Leone continue to experience some new Ebola cases. On 3 September, Liberia was once again declared Ebola-free. An earlier declaration, back in May, proved premature.

“Is [the lack of research] part of why we were able to get to zero [cases in Liberia] faster?” said Christie. “Maybe, maybe not. But it’s something we need to think about prior to the next outbreak.”

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