THE BLOG

Three Realities of Ebola

04/02/2015 17:03 GMT | Updated 06/04/2015 10:59 BST

Last week I met Stephen in a township close to Monrovia, the capital of Ebola-affected Liberia. With a shell-shocked expression, surrounded by the 13 orphaned children he is now responsible for, he told us how he survived the disease, but lost his partner, several family members and his job.

I spent a week travelling through Liberia and Sierra Leone, where I saw three dimensions of the Ebola epidemic; each very different but equally part of the picture today.

The first is one of real success in containing the outbreak. After a slow start, the combination of government action, international support and local activism is bringing numbers of new infections down.

In Liberia new infections are now so few that every member of the government and humanitarian community knows about each case. In Sierra Leone new cases continue to be seen, but newly opened assessment and treatment centres are making an impact and the numbers of new cases are falling.

Eliminating new cases entirely is a challenge but let's give credit where it is due. Rapid progress is being made.

Alongside the excellent medical work of many organisations, much of the credit is due to thousands of newly trained health volunteers. They go door-to-door looking for people who may be infected, helping to trace others who may be at risk and ensuring everyone gets the right treatment.

Supported by Oxfam and others, in partnership with community leaders and health services, these local heroes have succeeded in changing behaviour in their communities. They explain the importance of hand-washing and how going to treatment centres quickly saves lives. And they address the sensitive issue of avoiding traditional burial rituals that involve touching the highly infectious bodies of Ebola victims.

The second is that small pockets of disease remain and, without the right measures, it could still very easily spread. After several days of no new cases in Liberia for example, an individual has just tested positive, meaning his extended family are now on Ebola-watch.

Visiting a previously safe village in Sierra Leone last week, I saw someone being taken away in an ambulance for emergency assessment, and was told that several villagers had recently died or are suspected of having Ebola.

The third is the suffering, bravery and stoicism of the people most directly affected. In Sierra Leone, I met Mohammed and his family, who have been confined at home in quarantine for over two months. 14 family members have now died of Ebola. Finda survived Ebola, but lost a child, her husband and two siblings. With no means of support, she is now the carer for all their remaining children.

Edwin, a medical officer in a small clinic close to Freetown, lost six colleagues in the early days of the epidemic, and is now back at work helping to treat new cases. Oxfam has built a new wing so that patients suspected of having Ebola can be checked in safe isolation.

It's clear that when the outbreak is finally beaten, major challenges remain for people like Stephen and Mohamed, Edwin and Finda. The three West African countries hit by the crisis will still be desperately poor, with weak health and education services and limited opportunities.

That's why Oxfam is calling for a multi-million dollar post-Ebola 'Marshall Plan' to put these countries back on their feet. That means a recovery package to ensure desperate people get cash in their hands now to feed their families, good jobs to secure their long-term survival and decent health, education and other essential services to stop similar outbreaks. Ebola is beatable if we work together.