Fighting Ebola

PHOTO: Fighting Ebola

China will keep sending medical staff, technology and relief materials to help African countries with Ebola outbreaks as they are needed, said Cui Li, vice-minister of the National Health and Family Planning Commission.

She made her remarks during an interview with China Daily soon after World Health Organisation Director General Margaret Chan warned against complacency in the fight against Ebola, the deadly disease still affecting West Africa.

Chan said that the fight against Ebola faced huge challenges, and she called on the international community and the virus-hit countries to work together to tackle them.

Cui, in response, said: "Medical assistance, targeted to needs, will stay in the Ebola-hit countries and other African countries to finally reverse the epidemic. To contain the epidemic where it started is in the best public health interests of people in the rest of the world, including the Chinese."

As of Feb 9, China had sent nearly 800 medical workers to affected regions, and it will continue sending workers for at least six months, with plans to send 200 more medical staff members in coming months to assist in the outbreak response, said Cui.

"Experiences gained from the aid project in the anti-Ebola campaign this time will be studied to help form the guidelines on China's medical aid programs in the future," Cui said.

In the largest-ever medical aid programme so far implemented by China, the government has sent a total of 750 million yuan (S$165 million) worth of humanitarian and medical assistance to 13 Ebola-affected countries since the outbreak in West Africa began. About 800 medical personnel on both the clinical and public health sides have been sent to epidemic areas to combat Ebola, train local medical workers and help sustain the efforts, statistics from the WHO showed.

To date, more than 10,000 local staff members working in Ebola control and prevention, including doctors, nurses and community health workers, have been trained by Chinese experts, according to the commission.

Renewed pledge

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang pledged last month while meeting with the WHO's Margaret Chan that China would perform its duty as a major developing country and continue to do everything in its power to help the Ebola-hit countries together with the international community.

"China will also help African countries to develop their health systems so that they can adapt to the post-Ebola era," he said during his visit to Switzerland to attend the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos.

Chan responded that the WHO stood ready to co-operate closely with China, raise the level of awareness and coordinate all sides to achieve the final victory.

She hailed China's important role in the fight against the Ebola outbreak, calling it "exemplary" for the international community.

According to Cui Li, Chinese teams on the ground have to date provided testing for more than 4,200 Ebola virus cases in their mobile lab and received nearly 700 confirmed patients at their observation and treatment centres.

She said China's actions and support in combating Ebola have been timely and sustainable.

Funding and expertise

As the first cases were disclosed in March of last year, China quickly provided additional medical supplies worth 1 million yuan to four of the most affected countries, including Guinea, Liberia, Guinea-Bissau and Sierra Leone. In August, the second package of assistance, mainly emergency medical supplies worth 30 million yuan, was flown to the affected countries, thereby easing a desperate lack of protective equipment.

In September, China ramped up assistance significantly by opening a biosafety lab and providing protective treatment supplies and food assistance. The WHO and the African Union were each given $2 million(S$2.7 million) worth of emergency funds. The third round of emergency aid amounted to 200 million yuan. In October, the fourth package of assistance worth 500 million yuan was in place. China dispatched teams of public health and medical experts, continued to provide emergency supplies and initiated long-term co-operation plans to combat Ebola in West Africa.

Setting up a laboratory

In September, a team of 59 Chinese scientists was dispatched to Sierra Leone to develop a mobile laboratory there, helping to test samples and to improve the local lab's capacity in response to serious outbreaks, Cui recalled.

The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, together with the Academy of Military Medical Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Medical Science, sent medical experts and more than 90 tons of medical and logistical supplies to Sierra Leone. The medical team departed on Sept 16, while all other aid supplies were shipped the next day.

Through active co-operation with local government and international organisations, Chinese medical scientists developed diagnostic protocols and preventive measures, installed a remote temperature monitoring system and verified a kit they had developed to detect the disease. The mobile lab began operating on Oct 1.

Based upon local needs and the epidemic level, the scientists upgraded Sino-Leone Friendship Hospital from a testing and observation centre to a disease treatment centre. Meanwhile, a level-three biosafety laboratory established with aid from China was officially opened on Nov 20.

"These will stay in Africa to help enhance the local epidemic response capacity," Cui said.

Sharing knowledge

Knowledge is considered necessary to empower locals to handle epidemic outbreaks properly. To that end, China has sent a team to train local public health staff members in the three worst-affected countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea and another six neighbouring countries with high epidemic risks, according to Liang Xiaofeng, deputy director of China CDC.

More than 10,000 local residents, including medical staff, community healthcare workers, government officials and volunteers, have been trained for strengthening public awareness of self-protection and disease prevention.

On the clinical side, in mid-January, China's Ebola treatment centre in Liberia for the first time released three patients cured after 22 days of treatment, including a 7-year-old boy.

Treatment centre

As the embodiment of China-Liberia friendship, the 100-bed treatment centre funded by China opened on Nov 25 and started to accept patients for observation and testing on Dec 5.

The centre's commitments cover treatment of confirmed patients, observation of suspected sufferers, public health training in disease prevention and control, and communication with experts in Liberia. With the most advanced equipment, the treatment centre is one of the most outstanding in Liberia.