South Africa helps to beat Ebola

21 January 2015

South Africa has deployed its first batch of trained health care professionals to work in Sierra Leone, in an effort to help contain the spread of Ebola in the country and other parts of West Africa.

The team, comprising one medical doctor and about 10 nurses were recruited and trained by the Right to Care organisation, and will leave for Sierra Leone on 23 January. The Department of Health has already sent a team of experts from the National Health Laboratory Service to run mobile testing facilities in Sierra Leone.

Right to Care chief medical officer Dr Pappie Majuba said many South African health care professionals had wanted to help in Sierra Leone, but they could not make part of the first team because of paper work.

The organisation is working in collaboration with the national Department of Health.

“The team will be in Sierra Leone for eight weeks and will be working with professionals who are already on sight in the country. When they return to South Africa, another team will be sent to replace them. It is an on-going process, and the number of professionals will be determined by the response and need,” said Majuba.

West Africa has experienced the worst outbreak of Ebola since the disease was first identified in 1976. According to the latest World Health Organization (WHO) statistics, there have been more than 21 000 reported cases of Ebola in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone and more than 8 300 deaths; 678 health care workers are known to have contracted Ebola, of whom 382 have died.

Sierra Leone is the epicentre of the outbreak, with more than 10 000 known cases.

Majuba said the team received intense training in South Africa, and would continue to receive further training in Sierra Leone before they started treating patients. Measures had been put in place to ensure that their chances of the disease were almost 0%.

The team

Nurse Ishmael Mbulawa, 27, is on the team. He had no fears or thoughts of contracting the disease, as he would be taking all precautionary measures, he said.

“At the end of the day, I am doing this to save people’s lives and contain the disease. They (his family) should be proud that they have a representative in the team.”

Nurse Neo Mokone, 28, said when she first heard about the Ebola outbreak in Liberia in 2014, she felt a need to go help in the country. “I felt a need to go and help as an African and a nurse. I believe that nursing is my calling. we need to contain the disease before it breaks out even further to other countries.”

Vaccine on the way

Meanwhile, South Africans are at the forefront of efforts to find a vaccination for the virus.

Professor Helen Rees, executive director of Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute (Wits RHI) in Johannesburg and a world-renowned vaccinologist, chaired an expert meeting on Ebola vaccines in Geneva under the auspices of the WHO, on 8 January.

It was the second high-level meeting on Ebola vaccines access and financing, and it reviewed the current status of clinical trials of vaccines and plans for Phase II and Phase III efficacy trials. It appears that the two vaccines being considered for Ebola are safe to be tested on healthy human volunteers, and trials are due to start soon.

Also on the agenda were funding mechanisms for potential Ebola vaccine introduction and the process for decision-making on introduction beyond Phase III trials. This first high-level meeting was held on 23 October 2014.

Health care workers were likely to be among the volunteers to test the vaccine, Wits RHI reported. Everything was being done to speed the normal trial phase of drug manufacture and to scale up production, meaning widespread availability of the vaccines may happen as early as later this year.

However, there was some concern that the outbreak was on the wane, which would make it harder to test the effectiveness of the vaccines – though this would of course be very welcome news. Rees commented that only when the vaccines were available would it be possible to determine whether they should be rolled out to entire populations or focus on high-risk groups.

Business Day newspaper reported on 19 January that South African health care workers in Sierra Leone might be among the frontline staff offered experimental vaccines when clinical trials got under way in West Africa in the next two months.

Researchers and vaccine manufacturers are pushing ahead with plans to test whether three experimental Ebola vaccines are effective against the virus, racing against time as the number of patients falls.

A clinical trial is due to begin in Liberia by the end of the month, and studies in Sierra Leone and Guinea will begin in February. It is likely to take up to six months to determine whether the vaccines are effective.

Once clinical tests had been completed and the vaccines were found to be safe and effective, vaccination would be done by prioritising those greatest at risk of contracting Ebola; for example, frontline workers and close contacts of people proven to be infected with the virus, said the WHO.

Pharmaceutical companies developing the vaccines had committed to ramp up production capacity for millions of doses to be available in 2015, with several hundred thousand ready before the end of the first half of the year. This could be the fastest vaccine roll-out in history.

Ebola is a haemorrhagic fever that is spread through contact with bodily fluids of infected people or the highly contagious body of someone who has died of the virus. Burial practices that involved people touching and cleaning bodies of Ebola victims had helped fuel the outbreak.

SAinfo reporter