Dealing with African epidemics needs more than just a health response

Increasing human-wildlife interactions pose threats not only to public health, but also to conservation, and well-being. Ahmed Khan

Understanding the complex linkages between food systems, wildlife, and environmental health raises questions about the governance of epidemics in sub-Saharan Africa. These epidemics, like the recent outbreak of the Ebola virus, are born from interactions between society and nature.

There are dire human development needs in the region. These needs make an evaluation of institutional structures and processes critical. This is especially true when dealing with the mutual needs of natural resource management and public health.

Most of the interventions during the Ebola outbreak focused on public health. An example of this was the work done on vaccine trials and lock downs. A complementary approach is to assess food security and nutritional well-being, address wildlife management concerns and map risk zones in an environmental governance framework.

These multiple pathways could pave the way to understanding the synergistic efforts between public health, food security and wildlife management.

Food security and human development challenges are huge issues on the continent, and particularly in western Africa. With several fragile states and weak governance systems, the region has been a hot spot on a range of issues from civil conflicts, fragile states, cholera epidemics, high infant mortality rates, and the recent Ebola outbreak.

So, what can governments and non-governmental actors do to curb and prevent future crisis?

Food security

National and sub-regional food policies are necessary, in addition to climate-smart food production strategies. This is because the region is vulnerable to both global environmental and economic changes. For example, climate change is affecting fishery productivity and seafood access in the region. Even with good catch-landings, it has been experiencing a net seafood deficit. This is partly because most government policies emphasise industrial production for exports rather than local consumption. A twin approach that encourages both local food access in the small-scale sector and export markets in the industrial sector is crucial.

Seafood is a major dietary need as it provides up to 75% protein source in countries like Sierra Leone. Ahmed Khan

Pressures on local seafood production systems often lead to alternate and other sources of protein including wild game. This has implications for food security and biodiversity conservation as well as for public health.

Then there’s the agriculture sector. Here, climate change has implications for changing rainfall and temperature patterns that affect food production through flooding and drought.

Such environmental changes influence human well-being through food security as well as the spread of pathogens and diseases.

Paying attention to wildlife consumption may help prevent the outbreak of diseases. Human-wildlife interactions have led to potential Ebola contagion through pathogen hosts especially fruit bats, swine and apes. The World Health Organisation suggests that the disease initially spread from wild animals to humans after which it spread through human-to-human transmission

Migration and urbanisation

The risk to public health is also increased by migration. This is further heightened by cross border travel. In the absence of vaccines, high fatality rates ensue. The Mano River Basin is one such example. The high cross border traffic in this area bordering Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone could have spurred the rapid infection rates in the sub-region.

At the same time, increasing urbanisation and deforestation also affects critical habitats of these wildlife species and worsens its potential spread.

Be better prepared

The past epidemic in west Africa demonstrates a dysfunctional intervention process that was too late and poorly coordinated. Added to that is corruption and abuse. Efforts are required for ecosystem monitoring, social and cultural norms that are consistent with medical best practices, and institutional partnership for health research to prevent future outbreaks.

The incidence provides lessons on disaster preparedness to deal with crisis management. It also points to the need for interdisciplinary research and capacity building programs for environment and public health practitioners. These practitioners need to be aware of the social, cultural, political and economic dimensions of epidemics.

Multi-level institutional partnerships with organisations like the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation, United Nations Environment Programme, the World Health Organisation, and regional governments are necessary for coordinating and strengthening capacity to deal with future crisis.

Research centres and local governments could play the role of bridging organisations within these partnerships. This may involve new models of community development and rural planning that integrates disaster management and health protocols with local institutions and actors.

Diaspora and local social networks have been phenomenal in pooling resources together to support victims and could even play a bigger role in championing training and public engagement initiatives.

Lastly, mutually enforcing national policies that support nutritional well-being and ecosystem integrity could also mitigate such epidemics.