Event Report: Inspired in Hull with Dr Luis Sambo, Leading the Fight against Ebola, West Africa 2014

On Wednesday 9th October, 2019, Dr Luis Sambo, former World Health Organisation Regional Director for Africa, returned to campus to tell the story of the Ebola Crisis of 2014, and how he lead the team co-ordinating the global fightback.

You can watch the lecture here, by skipping forwards to 43 minutes. There are also event photographs beneath the event report below.

The 2014 outbreak of Ebola virus in West Africa was the most severe and most complex Ebola epidemic to break out to date, with 28,000 cases recorded, resulting in 14,000 deaths. ‘We had no choice but to fight’, Dr Sambo explained to the audience. And that is exactly what he did…

On Wednesday, guests were privileged to hear from Dr Sambo, discussing his time in post as the Regional Director for the WHO (Africa), co-ordinating the response to the Ebola crisis of 2014. The session ended with an engaging Q&A session led by Professor Lesley Smith, Professor of Women’s Public Health, HYMS. 

Luis took a diverse audience of students, staff and alumni back to the very beginning where the virus first became apparent; Guinea. He explained how the name Ebola was born because the first victim came from the village of Yambuku, located near to the Ebola River; a tributary of the Congo River. He went on to enlighten the audience how Ebola first evolved and how it transfers through human contact with monkeys, fruit bats, forest antelope and porcupines.

Dr Sambo came across many challenges during his fight against the epidemic. During the early days, diagnosis of the disease took several days, and a flight to France to reach a diagnosis, due to the lack of technology in Africa. This time was instrumental in the disease spreading at a rapid rate, as without a diagnosis responses could not be put in place.

Quite pertinently, a member of the audience later asked, ‘since this outbreak has the technology and facilities been put in place to diagnose such diseases within Africa?’. To which Luis despondently answered, ‘no, there are always more pressing matters needing urgent attention’, and so after the epidemic the attention had already been diverted to another apparently more pressing problem.

Luis’s presentation skillfully outlined the different stages of the outbreak, from defining Ebola and the disease, to the government and leadership response at different levels, and his response plan. He was quick to identify emergency support teams alongside creating an emergency support center.

His talk went on to explain struggles with the government’s response to the epidemic. Due to the continuity of the disease spreading and lack of resources, it was the WHO which announced the outbreak as a level 3 emergency, globally. With cases still rising at an unprecedented level the secretary General of the WHO took the matter to the Security Council and the epidemic was listed as a threat to global security. With this new global media attention, the Global Ebola Response Coalition (GERC) and the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER) called in other countries to help with technological and financial support.

Luis touched upon his duty to ensure that all communities were communicated to in the right way, so that the public understood the implications and actions needed for prevention. Without the buy-in of the communities involved, he wouldn’t have been able to create such an effective rapid-response plan.

He highlighted the logistical hindrances faced, including the struggle to get clean water and soap, especially when ships had stopped docking in the affected countries, and lorry drivers refused to cross certain borders. He also addressed the lack of education which health professionals had been provided and how he addressed the implementation of training to deal with the burials of those who succumbed to the disease. His frustration became evident again when he told the audience how 1,000 health workers became infected and 500 of those helping to save others unfortunately died.

Luis captivated the audience with his presentation and finished by telling us about the impact the outbreak had. It caused catastrophic fear across Africa. The psychological impact was severe and people became afraid of physical contact. It caused a dramatic decline in visitors, and an increase in food prices due to people’s reluctance to import into affected countries.

Dr Sambo left the audience with some thought-provoking lessons, which he had learnt through his journey. He stressed how the world should have responded quicker, as with more rapid buy in of the government, health professionals and the community we would have seen drastic differences in survival rates.

A humble storyteller and a truly inspirational asset to the University of Hull alumni community, Dr Luis Sambo worked hard and showed leadership through such a devastating human tragedy.

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