Outgoing head of UN Ebola mission sums up progress in ‘big battle’ with outbreak

Outgoing head of the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER), Anthony Banbury addresses journalists in Accra, Ghana. Photo: UNMEER/Simon Ruf

2 January 2015 – Delivering his final press conference as head of the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER), Anthony Banbury today pointed to significant progress in tackling the outbreak since he was appointed in September last year, while stressing that zero cases is the only acceptable outcome in the “big battle” with the disease.

“It’s important to remember where we were when we started,” Mr. Banbury told journalists in Accra, Ghana, where the Mission is headquartered. “At the time, there were predictions of up to 1.4 million cases of Ebola by the start of the year…Here we are in January and we have a total of around 20,000 cases instead of 1.4 million. That’s 1.4 per cent of what was being projected as a possibility by credible scientists back in September.”

As Mr. Banbury prepares to hand over the reins of UNMEER to Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed on Saturday, he was able to point to the latest World Health Organization (WHO) report on the epidemic, which counted 20,206 confirmed, probable or suspected cases of Ebola and 7,905 reported deaths.

His last trip to review progress in the three most affected countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone revealed an increased number of isolation beds in all three countries, with two beds per patient in Guinea, 3.5 in Sierra Leone, and 14 in Liberia.

With support from UNMEER and other partners, all three countries also have capacity sufficient to isolate and treat 100 per cent of confirmed Ebola patients and enough burial teams to ensure safe and dignified burials for 100 per cent of all deaths due to the disease.

Despite the progress, Mr. Banbury said several challenges remain, including the geographical dispersion of Ebola. There was also a need to change community behaviours and reduce resistance to the massive interventions attempted.

“We are engaged in a big battle with this disease,” he said. “It’s an insidious, invasive disease that attacks people through acts of caring and kindness…It’s going to be extremely hard for us to bring it down to zero but that is what we will do. That is the only acceptable outcome.”

According to Mr. Banbury, setting such ambitious targets is an “obligation” in order to bring the crisis to an end as quickly as possible. To achieve it, he said effective community engagement would be essential and underlined the need to maintain vigilance and commitment as the number of cases continues to drop.

“It’s a bit like putting seatbelts in cars,” he said. “If you have seatbelts in cars you can save a lot of lives, but only if people use those seatbelts.”

Stressing the “heavy responsibility” on the UN, he said that working with affected communities was a privilege.

UNMEER announced that Mr. Ould Cheikh Ahmed will be visiting the affected countries next week to reinforce the Mission’s strategic priorities. Before his new appointment, the Mauritanian national was Deputy Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya.


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