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Thursday, October 27, 2016, 09:24

China's role in Africa grows in Ebola's wake

By Shan Juan

China's role in Africa grows in Ebola's wake
Quarantine workers at Qingdao airport in Shandong province test samples for the Ebola virus on Monday. China remains on the alert for a possible influx of the virus. (Xie Hao / For China Daily)

Diseases come and go in Africa , but China's help continues, with such efforts as the public health center it launched in Sierra Leone during West Africa's Ebola crisis in 2014.

Although Ebola has faded, the China-built public health center, the only one in the country so far, is being made permanent to support local epidemic control, a senior health official told China Daily.

Wang Yu, head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said five Chinese CDC specialists now work in the facility in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone.

"More Chinese doctors are planned," he said.

Tasks of the public health center include surveillance and detection, lab work and regular immunization against infectious diseases.

Thomas Samba, a regional director of Sierra Leone's National Public Health Agency, said that with China's help, the nation can train more public health workers and be better equipped to defend itself if there ever is a comeback of Ebola or other infectious diseases.

During the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, China sent aid worth US$120 million and dispatched more than 1,200 medical workers, including public health specialists, to 13 affected countries, including Sierra Leone, to help combat the disease.

Wang of China CDC said that "it's important to empower Africa" and to let it accumulate local capability, because there's no telling when Ebola or another infectious disease might make a comeback.

Samba said there was a lack of public health services before the Ebola outbreak. In the country of 7 million people, there are only 20 to 30 public health specialists, nearly all trained abroad, although China is helping to improve the situation, he said.

"The concept and procedures to contain Ebola fit all other emerging pathogens as well," Samba said. "Capacity-building in public health is a major part of our nation's full recovery plan."

According to Wang, the West African countries hit hard by Ebola, which killed more than 11,000 people in the region, have all seen their development process wobbling, if not entirely halted. So "any small help can make a whole world of difference," he said.

After the Ebola crisis, China made an offer to the African Union to help build a disease control and prevention center in Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia, where the organization has its headquarters.

The center will cover 54 countries in Africa, many of which have no functional public health system, he said.

"It's a project endorsed by the presidents of China and the US and carried out by personnel from both countries," Wang said. More Chinese specialists will soon be commissioned to aid the operation of the African Union's CDC.

China also helps itself by helping others, said Gao Fu, deputy director of China CDC. "Our experience in Africa helps us make our disease prevention more effective."

Gao also urged the Chinese government to build a new lab of the highest biosafety level, known as p4, in North China.

Sierra Leone battles Ebola with help of Chinese workers

China-trained Thomas Samba from Sierra Leone serves as a senior regional director of the country's National Public Health Agency.

He said Chinese health workers have now become his colleagues.

Supported by the Chinese government, in 1995 he attended Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine, majoring in general practice, and studied in the city for more than five years.

According to him, public health specialists from China stayed in Sierra Leone after the 2014 Ebola outbreak to help the nation - whose citizens have a life expectancy of 50 - to build capacity in outbreak response.

"We are struggling to recover from the Ebola epidemic, which killed nearly 4,000 in the country, and China's assistance in public health is highly appreciated," he said.

It's important for the country of 7 million people to master how to handle emerging outbreaks, as infectious diseases like malaria remain major disease killers, he added.

With China's help, the country is able to monitor and record the prevalence of various diseases, particularly contagious ones, and the number of deaths caused by them.

Also, the country has begun offering public health education at the only higher education institute of medicine.

"Two or three more are planned," he said.

"We don't know if or when Ebola will come back," he said. The country is carrying out a post-Ebola recovery program and continuous care for Ebola survivors is a crucial part.

"Their situation is miserable, as many lose the ability to work after recovering from the virus," he added.

Common complications include a slow processing speed, aches, worsening eyesight and lower libido, which were reported by at least 2,000 survivors.

Due to limited knowledge of Ebola, "we have no treatment or cure targeting the virus itself, only supportive measures. That involves a lot of uncertainties", he said.

To assure them of better care, the government offers free healthcare services to all Ebola survivors. Others entitled to free services are pregnant and breast-feeding women, and children under 5 years old.

Samba said there is a vaccine against Ebola which showed great promise, but it remains very expensive.

"We are talking with global organizations like the WHO about the possibilities to use the vaccines in our country," he said.

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