One hundred and five health personnel from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have been deployed in the sub-region as standby forces to respond to outbreak of diseases and emergencies situations in member countries.
This follows the conclusion in Accra, of a five-day capacity training for the personnel to equip them with the skills and knowledge to effectively discharge their work.
The ECOWAS Region Rapid Response Team (ERRRT), dubbed the ECOWAS White Helmets,’ comprises medical officers, public health physicians, epidemiologists, laboratory technicians and veterinary surgeons from the 15-member countries of the sub-regional body.
Against the backdrop of the outbreak of Ebola virus disease that claimed the lives of over 11,000 people in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea three years ago, the ECOWAS Heads of State at their session in Accra last May, decided to establish the ECOWAS Centre for Disease Control as part of a united effort to contain disease outbreaks.
Some of the disease burdens in the sub-region are the scourge of HIV/AIDS, Ebola virus, threat of Zika Virus, SARS and Yellow Fever.
Health experts’ estimate that the African continent accounts for 100 public health emergencies, 80 per cent epidemic cases occur annually, and the situation is largely blamed on the weak health system and inadequate health infrastructure and personnel to effectively respond to threats of diseases.
Giving startling figures about the burden of diseases in the sub region at the close of the training programme, the Minister of Health, Alex Segbefia, in a speech read for him said the recent Ebola epidemic reversed gains and economic growth in the three affected countries to the tune of 2.2 billion dollars in Gross Domestic Product in 2015.
He said the disease continue to threaten not only macroeconomic stability but also food security, human capital development, and private sector growth, adding that the cost of SARS was estimated to have been 40 billion dollars.
Mr. Segbefia, whose speech was read by Ghana’s Director of Public Health, Dr Bedu Sarkodie, also participant of the programme, said “the whole region is at risk of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases and other public health emergency.”
“These risk factors continue to prevail, hence, there is significant chance that an epidemic of substantially more infectious disease will occur in the few decades,” Mr Segbefia cautioned.
He added that there was no doubt that weak fragile health systems hampered emergency responses stressing “ensuring an effective and sustained national preparedness capacity requires countries to commit domestic resources for the implementation of International Health Regulations (IHR,2005).
“The Zika threat continues to stare at us as it increases over time and space. We need to make it a top priority in our preparedness and response actions,” he added.
The Vice President of the ECOWAS Commission, Edward Singhartey, urged the participants to share best practices and pass on their skills and knowledge to other heath personnel to enrich their preparedness to respond to emergencies cases at homes and regional sub regional level.
He observed that disease occurred within socio-cultural environment and tasked the participants to work closely with the local communities to identify and response to threats of diseases.
The Director General of the West African Health Organisation, Dr Xavier Crespin, expressed the appreciation of the sub regional body and US government in helping to establish the ERRRT to respond to emergency.
Messages from the representatives of the US Embassy, World Health Organisation and Deputy Minister of Planning, Research and Development of Liberia, Yah Martor Zolia welcomed the idea of the ERRRT as an effective mechanism for disease control and surveillance.
By Salifu Abdul-Rahaman