Ebola fears undermine regional peacekeeping plans in Africa

Volunteers help manage the bodies of people who died from Ebola in Guinea. A deployment of Sierra Leonean peacekeeping force to Somalia was cancelled because of fears that troops could spread the disease in the Horn of Africa. Photo by: Idrissa Soumaré / afreecom / ECHO / CC BY-ND

International peacekeeping plans across all Africa were put on hold in August due to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, where the disease continued to spread despite WHO-led efforts to contain it.

During an emergency hearing Aug. 7 of the the U.S. House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Bisa Williams raised concerns over the fact that the African Union cancelled a scheduled deployment of a Sierra Leonean peacekeeping force to Somalia due to fears that troops could spread the disease to the Horn of Africa.

“We do not want the virus to erode the capacity of African countries to address other important national and regional challenges,” she said. “We want to ensure these countries remain strong, strategic allies to the United States in a region facing serious development and security challenges.”

Another problem was the lack of capacity of the governments involved to contain the outbreak.

“Although these affected countries are home to many heroic and dedicated health workers, the rapid spread of the disease reflects the lack of national capacity, particularly in the three epicenter countries of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, to limit the spread of the disease and to treat patients,” said Williams, a former U.S. ambassador to Niger. “The NGO community — which has played a significant role in the response effort by providing front-line medical care to patients — is hard-pressed to continue to provide care in all affected regions.”

Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control, underscored the importance of building up infrastructure to improve future outbreaks in the region, as well as improving database management in the affected countries to help track down Ebola cases and people who may have been exposed. He emphasized that it’s essential to teach best health practices to all health workers, and suggested that the porous national borders and remoteness of affected villages hindered regional response efforts to the disease.

Frieden recalled a time when a former African official told him that the CDC is like the 911 for the world.

“And though I was happy to hear that, I realize that really what we want to make sure is that every country, or at least every region, has its own public health 911,” he said.

The Atlanta-based CDC pledged to send 50 disease control experts to the region in the next 30 days to support affected African governments, the World Health Organization — which had recently established a regional coordination hub for Ebola in Conakry — and NGOs working to stop the epidemic.

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About the author

  • Jeff Tyson

    Jeff is a former global development reporter for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers multilateral affairs, U.S. aid, and international development trends. He has worked with human rights organizations in both Senegal and the U.S., and prior to joining Devex worked as a production assistant at National Public Radio. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations and French from the University of Rochester.