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South Africa: Don’t Panic About Ebola, We Have Extremely Effective Surveillance Systems


Some may beg to differ with the health minister. While TB is very different from ebola, South Africans will (I hope) recall hearing about an epidemic of multidrug-resistant (MDR) and extensively drug resistant (XDR) TB being transmitted in health facilities in South Africa and surrounding countries, perhaps since the early 2000s. Scaremongering about infectious disease outbreaks doesn’t do anyone any good, but nor does underestimating the ease with which diseases can spread, within a country and internationally.

A three decade HIV pandemic has shown us that surveillance systems on their own are not enough. The XDR/MDR epidemic is very closely connected with the HIV epidemic in South Africa and has been attributed to poor infection control. Countries that wish to control disease spread need strong health systems. However, the reaction to HIV has not been a sustained strengthening of health systems as a whole, but rather a vertical, cherry-picking approach. The result is that most countries in sub-Saharan Africa now have crumbling health systems, massive shortages in skilled health personnel, inadequate equipment and unreliable vital supplies.

Conditions are so dangerous that UNAIDS advises UN personnel not to use health facilities in developing countries, although the institution seems to believe that the same facilities are fine for Africans. Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have relatively low HIV prevalence, whereas the number of HIV positive people in Nigeria could be the second highest in the world; South Africa is home to the highest population of HIV positive people. This has only weakened health systems further.

Nor is there any need to single out South Africa, Nigeria or the three countries that have the worst ebola outbreaks so far. There are Service Provision Assessments and other reports for many African countries showing that basic supplies such as gloves, soap and water, drugs, even injecting and other equipment, are frequently lacking. There are also scores of articles alluding to dangerous conditions, some published many years ago.

The South African health minister, and health ministers in all African countries, would be better off using outbreaks of ebola, MDR and XDR TB, hepatitis and HIV as arguments for investing in health systems that can provide safe health services for everyone, rather than for the rich alone, or for those suffering from headline grabbing diseases. Nosocomial TB in South Africa is thought to have started more than ten years ago, and affects many health facilities, in several countries. Therefore, there have been numerous outbreaks over that period, not just a few isolated instances.

Many of the people who have died of ebola are health professionals and others who are probably more aware of the risks they face than their patients are. Claiming that health systems are fine and that they are able to cope is a betrayal of the work their health professionals are doing. Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi should tell the WHO and other international institutions something that is an open secret about healthcare safety in African countries – it is in very urgent need of attention.

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