How the War Against Ebola Will Be Won

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Darius Mans President Africare_web.jpg

The historic U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in August has faded from memory. Ernst & Young's new report about Africa being second only to North America in the world in attracting foreign investment has not caused even a ripple in the news. Instead, world press coverage of Africa is all about Ebola; stories that engender ignorance, fear and stigma: Africa = Ebola.

Yet Africans have time and again demonstrated they can overcome disease. Polio in Angola and malaria in Benin are just two very recent examples from Africare's experience that give enormous hope that Africa will stop Ebola in its tracks with the support of the international community. All the calls for more international action are most welcome. But we cannot forget that ultimately it is not the CDC or experimental drug companies that will overcome the disease. It will be Africans who will win this war on the ground.

Less than 10 years ago Angola was suffering from an outbreak of Polio. Cases were increasing annually, and Angola was exporting the virus to neighboring countries. For more than three years running now, Angola has seen no new cases. The national polio campaign includes active surveillance of infections, cross-country vaccine transportation and routine door-to-door vaccinations in high-risk areas. Africare, World Vision, Catholic Relief Services and the Salvation Army, under the strong leadership of the Government of Angola, have trained thousands of Angolans to perform all these necessary functions and encourage healthy behaviors in communities that are keeping the country safe from polio.

Benin has a serious malaria problem. One reason is that millions live too far from health facilities. In 2004, Africare started a small local project, trying something new. Rather than bring remote communities to facilities for care, or bring facilities closer to communities, Africare trained communities to be their own health care providers. We trained women's groups to prevent, recognize and treat malaria. By 2008 the malaria incidence in the project area had dropped 73 percent, despite increasing nationally by 65 percent. This program has since been scaled up nationwide. Using the same community-based model, Africare has worked closely with the Ministry of Health to help Benin achieve universal coverage of long-lasting, insecticide-treated bed nets and encourage healthy habits in communities to control malaria.

Every day dozens of women, men and children are falling victim to the deadly Ebola virus. While the international community is rallying to build and staff up treatment centers, we need to ensure that families and communities have what it takes to respectfully care for their sick and dying family members. We need to ensure that families can do so while reducing their own risks for becoming ill themselves. We need to take the efforts to stop Ebola into communities to break the chain of transmission. We need to train up the hundreds of already involved Community Health Care Workers to go into households in a safe manner and teach family members how to safely and lovingly care for their families.

Africare in Liberia has trained hundreds of community health volunteers on Ebola "Dos and Don'ts" and supplied them with resources like simplified leaflets for illiterate and semi-literate citizens. This growing network of community volunteers has helped Africare reach approximately 100,000 Liberians with Ebola education and behavior change messages. With proper support and resources, the families on the frontline can stop Ebola in its tracks. Let's empower them to do it.

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