The dry season has arrived in Ebola-affected West Africa, and that could be both a blessing and a curse for responders on the ground working to contain the virus.
Since the outbreak was first detected in May, summer and fall rains in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone turn roads into pits of mud, virtually impassable by vehicles transporting food, health care supplies or medical personnel.
Now that the rains have passed and three months of dry season are expected, aid workers hope to be more effective in distributing food and supplies quickly. However, that also means Ebola itself can spread more easily than before — a threat that U.S. response coordinators are taking pains to address.
One of the biggest concerns: the cross-border movement of potentially-infected people.
“When you look at the number of people from Liberia and the number of countries that they travel to just in the region, it is not an inconsequential flow,” Christopher Kirchhoff, special assistant to the chairman of the joint chiefs of Staff (head of the U.S. military), said during a panel discussion at the Aspen Institute last week in Washington, D.C. “There’s quite a bit of modeling that is now being done in the defense community to think through what it means to all of a sudden have … farmers taking goods to market across national borders [or] people going on annual pilgrimages to see ancestral villages.”
Dr. Lynn Black, chair of the board of directors at global nonprofit Last Mile Health — one of the top nongovernmental organizations fighting the disease in Liberia — and an attending physician recently returned from West Africa, underscored that the dry season can be an immense help for aid workers, although she also expressed concern that the virus could spread as a result of increased travel, particularly along the long and porous border between Liberia and the Ivory Coast.
“It will be a really … devastating problem if Ebola gets into the Ivory Coast,” she said.
Kirchhoff pointed out that during the dry season, many travelers from Ebola-affected Liberia travel to regions with even less governance and greater instability, where security concerns limit access for public health organizations and aid workers.
“It’s very possible to imagine a frightening scenario where Ebola breaks out in a region that is not able to welcome international health care workers in the way that Liberia has,” he said.
The challenge for response coordinators is to prevent such a scenario while at the same time allowing for travel and trade — desperately needed to aid the suffering economies of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
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