Ending Ebola in the DRC: Why I'm Proud UK Aid is Keeping Us Safe | Theo Clarke


Author: Theo Clarke

Imagine if you lived somewhere where there was no 999 to call. You can’t ring your local GP because there isn’t one. There is no ambulance to call, let alone a road to get to you. Your local health clinic is lacking clean water and refrigeration to store essential drugs. And when a deadly virus breaks out they lack even latex gloves, soap or a thermometer.

This was the harsh reality for so many living in rural villages in Sierra Leone during the 2014 Ebola outbreak. While visiting this West African country I met with a local nurse who was struggling to care for her community with such basic facilities. It was no surprise to hear how she was overwhelmed when Ebola broke out. The deadly virus completely exhausted their already limited resources.

During my visit I also met children who had been orphaned due to the virus and many families decimated by Ebola in Magazine Wharf, which is one of the impoverished and densely populated slums in the capital Freetown.  Samuel, a primary school teacher, told me how he had lost his wife, sister and brother to Ebola in 2014. Within weeks he had become a single parent to his own four children and the guardian of three nephews and nieces.

Diseases do not respect national borders, so we need to tackle global problems at their origin. The outbreak of Ebola, in West Africa in March 2014, took two years to contain and killed over 11,000 people – about 40% of those infected.  This compares starkly with the DRC where recently in eleven weeks, 29 people died, out of an estimated 53 infections. This is in no small part due to a major and rapid response from the UK Government, other international donors and aid agencies. The good news is that the outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which began in May this year, has just been declared over.

The success in DRC is more remarkable given the early signs. The first infections occurred close to the border with the Central African Republic and the Republic of Congo – countries with very fragile health systems. They also took place in an area linked by river and road to the Congolese capital Kinshasa - home to more than 10 million people. As the country’s health minister said recently, the outbreak “had all the makings of a major crisis.”

So what made the difference this time? Two answers: preparation and vaccination. The positive result of the disaster in West Africa was that the global health community learned valuable lessons, and was therefore prepared for the next outbreak. Donors were ready to mobilise funds fast, and – working with national governments - had put in place systems that would enable better coordination. 

In addition, a groundbreaking vaccine was available for the first time in this emergency, which was, as the health minister said, a “game changer”. Within thirteen days of the start of the outbreak the vaccine had arrived in country and the first person had been treated. Friends, family and others who’d had contact with suspected patients were vaccinated, as were all the people in their circles, along with frontline health workers. This contained the outbreak.

We can and should be extremely proud of the role that UK aid played in responding to this crisis, and stopping it from developing into a full-blown disaster. Between May and July the Department for International Development gave £6m to the World Health Organisation to support their response. It is also the second largest contributor to the World Health Organisation’s Contingency Fund for Emergencies, and the largest donor to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which developed the vaccine used in DRC.

It is a direct reflection of our values of a nation that we send dedicated people and resources to help others in need, and that we invest in solutions to the complex and dangerous challenges of an increasingly interconnected world. This is the Britain that the international community admires, a nation of strength and commitment during times of adversity.

Given the ease with which diseases can now spread, thanks to urbanisation, increased levels of global trade and travel, human migration and climate change, the Government is right to promote global health security. Through UK aid, we are helping to build a safer, more stable and prosperous world – not only because this is it the right thing to do, but because it is in our national interest.

This isn't the end of Ebola: there will be new outbreaks, and new challenges to deal with. There are many other diseases that could lead to further epidemics. The DRC is also currently facing a worrying outbreak of polio that has paralysed 29 children and there are outbreaks of Lassa Fever in Nigeria and the Nipah virus in India. It's impossible to predict what the next epidemic will be, but we can make efforts to be prepared.

This is why I’m pleased that to see that the UK has recently launched a £40m fund for tackling deadly diseases in Africa. There will be support for the WHO to help it enhance longer-term preparedness, detection, and response on the continent, and a £20m contingency mechanism to allow the UK to swiftly respond to emergencies. The fund will enable the UK to supporting developing countries to make sure that their national health systems are resilient, responsive, and accountable.

Having seen first hand the devastating impact of the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, I’m proud that my country has led the way in helping to halt the spread of this deadly disease. When Ebola struck, it was British aid workers like NHS nurse William Pooley who put their lives on the line to help out and stop that disease from spreading.

We should be proud that the UK is a leader in international development and has upheld its commitment to spend 0.7% of our national income on overseas aid. British aid is helping to make the world more safer, healthier and more prosperous which is a win for the developing world and a win for us here at home.