Ebola must never again be allowed to claim lives for want of basic healthcare

This week, Jim Murphy  wrote in The Guardian on the need for the UK to take a lead in the fight to eradicate Ebola, ensuring universal health coverage becomes a reality.

His full comments are below:


One million people could die from the Ebola outbreak in the next four months. That’s the verdict of the US Centers for Disease Control and Protection, an organisation respected internationally for its sober analysis. When they predict a million could die, they are not choosing a big number to garner attention, they are saying it because it is possible.

So far, the international response to this human tragedy has been inadequate. In the starkest terms, communities are being ripped apart, local health provision is close to collapse, and many of the health workers needed to fight the virus are instead becoming infected and dying themselves.

The facts alone are terrifying: five people infected every hour, the number of new cases doubling every three weeks and a fatality rate of 70%. As always, though, while the scale of this crisis is vast beyond our comprehension, the true impact is devastatingly personal. The screams of bereaved parents are becoming a fixture on our nightly news.

William Pooley, the British health worker who contracted the disease while fighting the outbreak, has spoken of what life is like on the frontline. Anyone who heard him tell the heartbreaking story of the gruesome deaths of a young brother and sister in his care cannot fail to have been moved by his tears.

Last week’s Defeating Ebola conference in London came not a minute too soon. The window to halt Ebola before it runs completely out of control and shatters communities is closing. Yet the reality, as Médecins sans Frontières’ Vickie Hawkins has made clear, is that we know how to defeat Ebola – isolate the disease, treat those affected, and break the chain of transmission – but our problem is a lack of resources, expertise and ability on the ground.

So, while we can be genuinely encouraged by the extra support and manpower pledged at the London conference, those promises won’t start to make a difference until they materialise as a reality in west Africa.

Three things are urgently needed: frontline assistance in tackling the disease; community mobilisation to inform the public, and counter damaging rumour and misunderstanding; and support to deal with the indirect victims of the outbreak, those in need of medical care not immediately related to Ebola, such as malaria and diarrhoea. In addition, every effort must be made to expedite the production of a vaccine, and neighbouring countries must be helped with preparedness and contingency planning.

The UN estimates that responding to this crisis will cost $1bn (£626m) – but only if it is confined to the three states already dealing with the disease. And that is the key.

As always, prevention is better than cure. That’s true for those neighbouring states, and it will be true in the future. What matters now is stopping Ebola and ending the crisis, but the lesson for the future is clear: there is no substitute for adequate local health cover.

It was the fundamental lack of proper health coverage in some pockets of rural west Africa that allowed this outbreak to grow unchecked for so long. Now it is a global crisis.

In the UK, we have one physician for every 360 people. In Sierra Leone, it is one for every 45,000 people; in Liberia, it is one for every 70,000.

A cross-party parliamentary report last week concluded that the Ebola crisis shows health services must be strengthened. Now, across the world, from the World Bank to Bill Clinton, there is a growing consensus that this outbreak must awaken the world to the need for universal health coverage.

In the words of the former US president Bill Clinton: “If ever there was a case for using more of our government aid money to build efficient, smart and reliable comprehensive health systems in countries that don’t have them, this is it.”

There are many reasons universal health coverage is so important – 3 million people dying every year from easily preventable diseases. A million die on their first and only day. But this epidemic provides a further powerful example of what can flourish beyond the reach of decent healthcare.

So, as the world prepares to agree the next set of development goals next year, it is clearer than ever that universal health coverage must be placed at their heart. The sustainable development goals will set the path for global development until 2030, and basic healthcare for all must be given top billing.

The UK should be at the forefront of those making this happen. The country that gave the world the NHS should champion the right of other countries to have the chance to build their own robust health systems.

Development is fundamentally about power and the powerless, and there is no greater example of those imbalances of power than an epidemic that would have been caught and tamed had it emerged in any community with adequate basic healthcare.

So now we need, first, to defeat this deadly virus and then to work to ensure that it doesn’t return.

No one should die for want of the basic healthcare that many in the rest of the world take for granted. Over the next 15 years we can make that ambition a reality – and save and change millions of lives in the future. Through the UN, the richest nations in the world have to sign up to that deal of universal healthcare, before it’s too late.

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