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Ebola crisis is long-term fight, warns head of Red Cross

12 December 2014

There is no quick fix to stopping Ebola in West Africa, the head of the Red Cross has warned.

Elhadj As Sy, secretary general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), said there was “no way” the disease would be contained by the end of the year.

“Everybody is looking for a quick fix and rapid solution, but we should recognise there will never be a simple solution for a very complex problem,” said Mr As Sy, who was speaking at London’s Chatham House yesterday,

“This is not a normal disaster where everybody is running to help, because of the fear around Ebola.”

Worldwide problem

Mr As Sy added that it is in the interests of the whole world to defeat Ebola in West Africa.

“If we contain Ebola in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, we will take the burden of Ebola from the shoulders of the whole world – we will all be safer,” he said. 

At the beginning of October, the World Health Organization set out a plan to halt the epidemic.

The target is to isolate all Ebola patients and carry out safe burials for all Ebola victims by 1 January.

Of the target, Mr As Sy said: “There’s no way it can happen in three weeks’ time. I think it was a good aspirational goal to do everything possible to try to match the magnitude of the problem with our responses.

“It also shows the dangers of using mathematical models and setting time frames within which to operate in, without taking into account other dimensions of the crisis.”

Risk of complacency

Making his first visit to the UK as secretary general of the IFRC, Mr As Sy said progress has been made against the disease in some areas of West Africa. However, he urged people not to become complacent, particularly in the run up to Christmas. Elhadj As Sy, secretary general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies© Info

“At this time of year there are more social gatherings and movements of people, so there may be increased risk of infection,” he said.

“That’s the time to be more vigilant and that’s the time to keep on sustaining the good behaviour to protect the gains that we have made.”

According to the World Health Organisation, Ebola has claimed more than 6,300 lives, predominately across Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.

Ebola fighters

The Red Cross Movement has more than 10,000 trained volunteers tackling the disease across the three countries.

The work of so-called ‘Ebola fighters’ has been recognised by Time magazine, which named them their ‘Person of the Year 2014’.

Mr As Sy paid tribute to the Red Cross volunteers in his speech and emphasised the importance of gaining the trust of communities affected by Ebola – an integral part of the volunteers’ work.

“The starting point is to build the trust in the community so that people are open about cases and they trust us with those cases and to bring them to treatment centres,” he said.

“We need to strengthen our work in fighting stigma and discrimination so people are not driven underground through fear of being stigmatized, isolated and ill-treated.”

Five steps to beat Ebola

The Red Cross response to the Ebola outbreak is focused on five core ‘pillars’.

  1. Raising awareness of the disease
  2. Finding people who have come into contact with Ebola so they can be tested for the disease and quarantined if necessary
  3. Treating patients
  4. Safely burying Ebola’s victims
  5. Working with communities and survivors to reduce stigma

While much has been made of the need for treatment centres, treating patients alone is not enough to rid West Africa of the disease, according to Mr As Sy.

“The biggest concern, which is at the same time an opportunity, is to make sure all pillars of the response are considered at the same level,” he said.

“There’s a lot of talk about treatment centres and safe and dignified burials, but these are only two pillars among many.”

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