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Is the Western Hemisphere Ready for Ebola?

Over the past month and a half, the world has been challenged by the nimble Ebola virus, the latest outbreak of which has killed over 5,000 people. Even in the United States, a country with one of the best healthcare systems in the world, the Ebola virus infected two healthcare workers and claimed one life, revealing gaps in preparedness and protocol.

If this level of uncertainty is present in the U.S., what does it mean for nations with fewer resources, like many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean?

Although no case of Ebola has been confirmed in the region, Latin America and Caribbean leaders are already taking steps towards prevention. They are implementing travel restrictions, constructing quarantine centers, investing in biosafety equipment, training health professionals and re-evaluating infectious disease protocols.

Take Brazil, for example, which had a suspected Ebola patient arrive last month to a public health clinic in the town of Cascavel, Paraná. The patient was immediately quarantined and transported by an Air Force plane to the Instituto Nacional de Infectologia (National Institute of Infectious Diseases) in Rio de Janeiro. The 64 people who had been in proximity to the patient were immediately alerted via contact tracing and monitored by Brazilian health officials. Though the patient eventually tested negative, the emergency response system and protocols appeared to be functioning well.

Like Brazil, Costa Rica also has a robust capacity to deal with a potential outbreak. Costa Rica, a country the size of West Virginia, has 29 public hospitals, two specifically focused on the treatment of Ebola patients. Costa Rica’s Instituto Costarricense de Investigación y Enseñanza en Nutrición y Salud (Institute for Research on Nutrition and Health—INCIENSA) has a level III Biohazard Containment Laboratory that is equipped to handle Ebola samples and has already coordinated with courier services to send samples to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the Untied States. The country’s health experts have undergone trainings and simulations based on the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) biosecurity protocols.

PAHO, the Western Hemisphere division of the World Health Organization, plays a vital role in coordinating health efforts in the region. For low-income countries with less health infrastructure and fewer resources, like those in the Caribbean basin and Central America, PAHO has facilitated purchases of personal protective equipment, provided training for healthcare workers and met with ministers of health and heads of state to revise protocols.

Still, some countries in the Caribbean basin and in Central America have a challenging road ahead. In addition to the actual health obstacles, the development level of the country impacts the ability to respond. Inadequate infrastructure, like faulty roads and insufficient airports, affect the maneuvering of patients. Rural and poor populations with limited access to television, Internet and cell phones pose a challenge to national risk communication strategies. As seen in West Africa and the United States, the ability of the government to share information and facts about Ebola is essential in reducing a culture of fear and stopping the spread of misinformation.

Ebola is not the only deadly disease on the minds of Latin American and Caribbean government officials. HIV/AIDS, cholera, malaria, yellow fever, chikungunya and dengue have all tested the health infrastructures of the region. According to the CDC, there are currently over 700,000 suspected cases of chikungunya in the region. In addition, the Pan American Health Organization’s database lists over 700,000 suspected cholera cases and 9,000 deaths in Haiti alone.

Though the threat of Ebola may be insignificant compared to other diseases in the region, the outbreak has started an important dialogue around health preparedness in the Americas. It has provided an opportunity for countries to assess their current capacity and work with regional and global institutions to strengthen training and protocols where lacking. The attention and resources invested in health infrastructure today will ensure the region is prepared to deal with the “Ebolas” of the future.

*Christine V. Gomes is a Program Associate at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. Follow her on Twitter @cvidgomes.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Ebola, Health care, Latin America

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