JICA withdraws staff over Ebola fears, experimental drug 'ethical' to test

Volunteers with the Red Cross Society of Guinea disinfect the premises of a hospital in Conakry. The Japan International Cooperation Agency has pulled out its staff in countries affected by Ebola. Photo by: Idrissa Soumaré / afreecom / ECHO / CC BY-ND

Aid efforts to combat the spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa suffered a blow Aug. 13 as the Japan International Cooperation Agency announced its decision to pull out 24 of its international staff members in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone as the Ebola outbreak continued to strike fear and instability in the region.

JICA spokesman Yuho Hayakawa explained the temporary evacuation was “preventive” since Tokyo was not willing for personnel to take further risks with a disease that had already killed almost 1,000 people — among them, several aid workers — over the past month, according to the World Health Organization.

“[Due to] the emergency and the declaration of WHO, it is the foreign ministry's decision to pull out staff because of the risk,” Hayakawa told Devex. “There are still some Japanese officials in these countries, but they are going to leave very soon. They are preparing the temporary evacuation.”

He added that JICA operations in the three countries would not be halted despite the decision, as some national staff in the field offices would continue working there.

The Japanese government’s announcement came just a few days after U.S. officials raised concerns over how the Ebola outbreak was starting to affect African Union-led peacekeeping missions in countries like Somalia over fears that participating soldiers came from Ebola-affected nations, and this could undermine long-term development efforts across the whole continent.

Some of the JICA officials that were flown out of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone went back to Japan, while several were deployed to neighboring Ghana to closely monitor progress in the three countries where the disease was still at large. Hayakawa did not disclose how long the temporary evacuation period would last, as “we are continuing to monitor the progress and development of the disease control in these countries,” but he echoed sentiments about the region’s capacity to handle and contain the disease.

“We have been implementing our projects in these countries, but they are not ready for Ebola disease control,” he said.

Experimental cure

Meanwhile, experts collaborating with WHO may have covered new ground in addressing the disease by declaring it was “ethical” to test an experimental cure for the disease in West Africa — even if there were still serious concerns over the safety of the new drug.

Clinical trials were being pushed in the next few weeks in August, but there remained a lot of questions on who would have access to the treatment, as the U.N. agency leading the anti-Ebola campaign in the region had yet to receive clear criteria from the medical ethicists on the issue.

Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, WHO assistant director-general, underscored in a virtual conference attended by Devex Aug. 12 that it was crucial to clarify that “not anything is permitted.

“The message was [that] when there are products that seem to indicate that there is enough evidence that they are likely to be effective, then these should be used,” she added.

Two infected U.S. aid workers were the first to test out the drug. Reports noted there had been dramatic improvements in their health condition, but there still was no guarantee of their full recovery, while a Spanish priest that was treated with the same medicine died Aug. 12 after being flown back home from Liberia.

"It's very important not to give false hope that Ebola can be treated now," Kieny said, noting they were still relying on preventive measures and control.

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About the authors

  • Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.
  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.