28/10/2014 05:52 GMT | Updated 27/12/2014 05:59 GMT

Ebola Outbreak: Focus on Response, Don't Forget Long-term Recovery and Learn Lessons For the Future

Ebola presents an unprecedented threat to Sierra Leone and other countries in West Africa, not just in terms of public health but also because of the outbreak's long-term social and economic impacts. The UK has taken the global lead in supporting the response and has committed significant resources. This recognises Britain's long standing links with Sierra Leone and ActionAid welcomes and fully supports this.


At this moment we must focus on the response but we need to begin to ask the tough but important questions of how we got here and how to prevent such a tragedy again. Ebola is spreading like wildfire. Right now, every person who gets Ebola is infecting up to two more people. Unless we can stop that downward spiral, the disease will remain out of control and US Centres for Disease Control estimate that 1.4 million people could be infected by January will be a very real prospect.

That's why the UK government's aid pledges are crucially important and why other governments around the world must follow their lead and act now, not just with money but with the skilled people and medical equipment necessary to treat the sick and dying. Everyone who falls sick needs to be helped. A West African Ebola death rate of seven in ten shames the world because while there may be no vaccine or cure, early and rapid treatment helps save lives.

Sophisticated health systems in the UK and US will tackle Ebola quickly so professionals here are only expecting a handful of cases. But even if much more basic public health systems are in place, it is possible to stop the virus in its tracks - as we saw when Nigeria was declared Ebola free. The lesson from this is that quick and early action works - prevention is better than cure and saves countless lives from being torn apart. It is also much more cost effective and shows the urgent need to support much poorer nations to put in place stronger public health systems.

ActionAid has been responding by delivering food aid to affected households and education materials to children where schools have been closed down as well as supplying equipment such as rubber gloves, soap and disinfectant to local clinics and survivor packs to Ebola victims and their families who have had their belongings incinerated in an effort to contain the epidemic. That's in addition to running health education campaigns across Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria.

We are scaling up our response further and have placed our programmes in the region on an emergency footing. Yet we know that what we and other agencies have done to date while important and effective is still not enough. International donors have still not committed enough and it is a shameful that the West only stepped up when this virus reached our shores. It is donor governments that are best placed to support buckling health services and give budgetary support to affected nations. There will need to be an economic recovery package as well as support to the medical response.

We should be shocked that prior to the epidemic there were less than 200 doctors in each of Sierra Leone and Liberia, both of which spend less than £130 per person per year on health care. Guinea's statistics are the same or worse. Not surprisingly health services are completely overwhelmed. That means people are not just dying from Ebola but also other diseases such as malaria, or that women cannot give birth in safe conditions.

We must prevent such outbreaks happening again. The response is costing millions of pounds. Prevention coupled with swift action, effective surveillance and early containment would have been much more cost effective as well as saving thousands of lives and stopping families and communities being ripped apart and development set back years. But if we treat this as just a medical emergency - a virus to be defeated with a hoped for vaccine or better medical care - then we will have missed the point. This is a failure of development. Poverty is the friend of the Ebola virus and under-resourced health systems aid its spread.

Long-term sustainable financing needs to be provided to support health systems and wider economic development. Too often there is a focus on a quick fix and donors want to support specific projects such as bed nets against malaria when investment in a comprehensive public health system is needed.

This is quite simply a matter of resources. It needs long-term sustainable funding from aid donors, cancellation of debt and crucially, if countries in West Africa are ever to stand on their own feet, the ability to raise their own tax revenues. That means preventing tax avoidance by large multinational companies as well as others.

We must move fast to end the crisis but then ask how we got here, why we ignored the warning signs and how can we prevent any recurrence. The world can afford to stop this happening again and surely this crisis has proved, if ever it were needed, that it is in all our interests.

ActionAid is appealing for donations for its Ebola response in West Africa.