Health workers at core of response to Ebola outbreak in West Africa

WHO has recently declared the Ebola outbreak in West Africa a Grade 3 Emergency under WHO's Emergency Response Framework (ERF), a move that signals the magnitude of the challenge on the one hand, and the readiness by WHO to deploy its full support capacity on the other hand. National and international efforts are converging to ensure an effective response in the affected countries: a sub-regional hub has been established by WHO in Conakry to coordinate WHO technical and operational support in close collaboration with partners and agencies on the ground.

Responding in a timely and efficient manner to major outbreaks depends on the capacity of health workers of these health systems to identify, refer, diagnose and care for the patients, as well as put adequate measures in place to contain the spread of the disease. The WHO International Health Regulations (IHR) identify the capacity “to provide support through specialized staff” as one of the core requirements for national surveillance and response. The April 2014 decision of the first Joint African Union (AU) / WHO Conference of Ministers of Health to strengthen disease surveillance and response across all African countries, creating an African centre for disease control, talks to these IHR requirements. These efforts are further supported by the Global Health Security initiative championed by the United States Government, which recognizes the need to “build capacity for a trained and functioning bio-surveillance workforce, with trained disease detectives and laboratory scientists.”

The Ebola outbreak highlights the critical need for investment in health workers and health systems.

James Campbell

“The Ebola outbreak highlights the critical need for investment in health workers and health systems. Global Health Security will depend on resilient health systems, with fit-for-purpose and fit-to practice health workers, whether those fighting the epidemic at the forefront, or the ones responsible for surveillance, detection and coordination of a response. The US-Africa Summit this coming week - Investing in Health: Investing in Africa’s Future - provides an excellent opportunity for African leaders and their partners to prioritise the long-term workforce investments needed to protect future generations. ” says James Campbell, Director of Health Workforce at WHO and Executive Director of the Global Health Workforce Alliance.

Ebola is a severe acute viral illness, with a case fatality rate of up to 90%; no vaccine is available, nor is there any specific treatment. As of 25 July 2014, there were 1201 cases with 672 deaths in the West Africa outbreak. Building health workers’ skills to minimize their own exposure to the disease is a key and often overlooked aspect of an effective response. “One of the priority areas of work is to train health care workers in affected countries on how they can protect themselves as they provide care for the sick” says Pierre Formenty, one of WHO’s technical officers specialized in Ebola.