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Dr. Magda Robalo of WHO says guaranteeing Ghana stay Ebola free an 'impossible task'

12/23/2014 10:47 EST | Updated 02/22/2015 05:59 EST
Outwardly, there is no sign of the sheer pressure under which Dr. Magda Robalo, the World Health Organization’s country director for Ghana, is working.

Ebola, she says in a sit-down interview with CBC News, has shocked everyone.

“I did not think it was going to be a crisis of this magnitude,” she says, “Killing so many people and going beyond a health problem to become a social problem, an economic problem, a humanitarian problem. I did not think Ghana would be at the centre of this.”

The headquarters for dealing with the outbreak was set up in Ghana in September.

The United Nations Mission on Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER) is based in its capital, Accra.

Robalo was just weeks into a new job, running the WHO in Ghana, when the first cases of Ebola were recorded. She had come to Ghana, via Namibia, with a clear focus on maternal health and child mortality.

Ebola changed everything.    

The WHO’s response has been criticized for being glacially slow amid a growing crisis, as well as the arrogant dismissal of health-care workers who first raised the Ebola alarm and petty infighting among departments.

How long will Ghana remain Ebola free?

Robalo offered no excuses for that.

“Those issues are not resolved. What the director-general of WHO did mention is that, 'Let us deal with the outbreak and then when we are done, we will do a proper assessment into finding out exactly what did happen.'”       

Since the first Ebola cases were recorded in March, more than 7,000 people have died, largely in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. There have been more than 18,000 cases, though that number is likely low because of a lack of reporting.  

Somehow, Ghana has remained Ebola free.

The government of Ghana is quick to credit its own border security and preparedness for the lack of virus.

 Elizabeth Ofusu-Adjare, Ghana’s minister of tourism, went so far as to declare last month, “I can confidently declare Ghana will remain Ebola free.”

But Ghana’s WHO country director knows this is more wishful thinking than reality.

With an incubation period of two to 21 days, border precautions can only do so much.

“That’s an absolutely impossible task to say we are going to prevent a case to enter Ghana,” says Robalo, “We cannot say because of the things we have been doing, we have kept Ebola away. That is not realistic.”

Heavy travel during the Christmas season presents an even tougher travel prospect, she says.  

“The possibility of having an Ebola case in Ghana, that’s what keeps me awake at night.” 

Tough questions in coming months, Robalo says

Behind the calm, collected exterior, Robalo reveals an inability to shut down.

“What happened while I was sleeping?  You wake up in the morning and ask yourself whether by close of business, will Ghana have a confirmed case of Ebola or not?”     

The next few weeks and months will be critical to determine if the Ebola epidemic will be brought under control.

Robalo says that will be when the tough questions should be asked.

“What has made it possible to become a major outbreak of this magnitude?”

In the next breath, she answers her own question, outlining underfunded public health systems in West Africa that suffer a chronic lack of resources and organization.

 “We cannot continue moving on with business as usual. It looks like rhetoric, but I hope this outbreak has opened the eyes of everybody, the leaders, the presidents, the prime ministers.”   

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