This week, the United States secretary of health, Mr Alex Azar, visited East Africa and the Ebola-hit provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo).
Ahead of his visit, he held a teleconference with journalists and spoke widely about Ebola response efforts in the DR Congo and preparedness in the East African region. In this interview, The Citizen’s reporter Louis Kolumbia, who participated in the conference highlights some of the key issues discussed.
QUESTION: Tanzania is facing a threat of Ebola. The government has already announced that there is no confirmed case of Ebola in the country as feared. What do you have to say about the developments in Tanzania?
ANSWER: We are aware that one individual has died in Dar es Salaam and the government of Tanzania has reported that two suspected cases showed negative results after tests.
The government of Tanzania, however has not made available samples or the ability to test the index case of the individual who died nor has it made available any other information about that individual.
We call upon the government of Tanzania to comply with the international health regulations and call for transparent disclosure of information and strong cooperation with the international health community. Therefore, allow for independent verification as to circumstances of that individual’s death.
How is the US helping DR Congo in dealing with the Ebola outbreak?
We continue supporting DRC, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and non-government organizations (NGOs) in DRC to stop the spread of Ebola; which is the most important thing.
But, we should recognize that the rate of spreading is very real as hundreds of thousands people are crossing porous borders every day.
Uganda is scanning nearly 100,000 individuals per day which is a very significant surveillance operation. Assisting in preparedness is something we can do to help other countries, that’s why I have been in Rwanda and Uganda.
Screening at borders, getting ready to diagnose cases, preparing isolation facilities, treatment centres and emergency operations coordinated staffs is another means of assisting the countries. Also, developed framework that will favour the WHO, NGOs, the US and the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) for collective response to the disease.
How do donor countries, including the US, contribute to the efforts by WHO to deal with Ebola?
Well, first the US is the largest single contributor to the WHO. Also, as I mentioned, we have provided a surge personnel to support deployment, however, the WHO does more than funding respective countries.
WHO actually deploys heroes to the field willing to work at Ebola treatment centres and attend patients. I was in Butembo Ebola health centre run by the DRC ministry of health and WHO.
In addition, other UN run organizations such as the United Nations Children’s Education Fund (Unicef) engage in incredible humanitarian and community outreach as well as community engagement approach to support the response which is widely important to people of east DR Congo.
Now the commitment of the US to the international community is not limited to stopping spreading of Ebola, but also broadly improving the health conditions of people.
There have been reports of community resistance in Eastern DR Congo. What is the current status?
Thanks for this question. There was a notable community resistance, but as we have been engaged in response efforts, there is a significant improvement.
I witnessed the situation myself in Butembo where I met community leaders, men, women and tribal communities who expressed improved relationship with responders, improved community engagement and trust with wasn’t the case in the past.
Increasing engagement, adds more support to vaccination efforts as only 450,000 individuals had been vaccinated with experimental vaccine.
We are engaged in humanitarian relief efforts through Unicef that include liver vaccination campaigns, anti-malaria mosquito net distribution and other activities that show more roles than just solving life crisis in the community.
Is there a mechanism responsible for controlling the management of Ebola funds?
The US, WHO, the World Bank (WB) and other donors are focused on the integrity of funds directed to response efforts and we will continue working to ensure there is truthfulness in the flow of these funds.
I have been impressed with President Tshekedi’s (Felix) personal engagement and commitment to improvement of people’s health in eastern DRC and his response against Ebola.
The appointment of the new health minister as I had pleasure of meeting him in Kinshasa and who works closely with the Ebola commission coordinator at the president’s office.
Of course, they lead response in eastern DRC that the WHO, Unicef, the US and NGOs do support the efforts.
As I end the call, I would like to emphasize one thing that the US is committed to people of eastern DRC and will partner with the DRC government in addressing global health development stabilization needs for the lasting peace, security and prosperity beyond the Ebola crisis.
As I said when I was in DRC during my meeting with community leaders, we were there before the first Ebola case, we will be there for the people and until the last case of the disease.