In an address to the Regional Committee for Africa, Sixty-fourth Session, Cotonou, Republic of Benin on Monday, Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr Margaret Chan dedicated part of her speech to the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) outbreak in West Africa.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Public domain image/Mondo Magic
Public domain image/Mondo Magic

The Ebola outbreak that is ravaging parts of West Africa is the most severe acute public health emergency seen in modern times. It has many unprecedented dimensions, including its heavy toll on frontline domestic medical staff.

I extend my deepest sympathy to the people of West Africa who have seen so many of their fellow countrymen fall ill and die. I extend my deepest sympathy to the families, the loved ones, the neighbours, and entire villages and communities.

I can tell you one thing: every one of these West Africans who died from Ebola was beloved.

All of us must respect the compassion and courage of so many health workers who unselfishly risked their lives, and lost them. The three countries have lost some of their greatest humanitarian heroes.

In the midst of these alarming trends, two WHO arguments that have fallen on deaf ears for decades are now out there with consequences that all the world can see, every day, on prime-time TV news.

The first argument concerns the urgent need to strengthen long-neglected health systems, an argument long-championed by your RD.

When heads of state in non-affected countries talk about Ebola, they rightly attribute the outbreak’s unprecedented severity to the “failure to put basic public health infrastructures in place.”

Without fundamental public health infrastructures in place, no country is stable. No society is secure. No resilience exists to withstand the shocks that our 21st century societies are delivering with ever-greater frequency and force, whether from a changing climate or a runaway killer virus.

The second argument is this. Ebola emerged nearly four decades ago. Why are clinicians still empty-handed, with no vaccines and no cure?

Because Ebola has historically been confined to poor African nations. The R&D incentive is virtually non-existent. A profit-driven industry does not invest in products for markets that cannot pay. WHO has been trying to make this issue visible for ages. Now people can see for themselves.