Paul M'Poyi, in Yaoundé, Cameroon
Representatives of the eight central African Red Cross Societies met in Cameroon last week to discuss measures to be taken against outbreaks of Ebola and meningitis. At the same time, they consolidated strategies for polio and measles eradication initiatives and continuing HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns for central Africa.
Important lessons were drawn from the Gabonese and Congolese Red Cross experience in responding to an Ebola outbreak at the beginning of the year. A general guide for intervention was presented at the meeting, for use by other Red Cross Societies, based on lessons learnt in Gabon and Congo.
The participants, from the Red Cross of Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Sao Tome and Principe, decided to include an Ebola awareness component to all future volunteer training programmes. They also undertook to lobby their governments to implement Ebola response programmes, to ensure rapid reaction in the event of an outbreak.
Meningitis poses a grave threat to populations in central Africa, as untreated cases can result in mortality rates as high as 50 per cent. The disease is highly contagious as approximately 25 per cent of carriers are asymptomatic, contributing unknowingly to the spread of the disease.
To further complicate matters, a newer strain of meningitis known as W135 has hampered efforts to combat the disease in Burkina Faso, as currently, there is a world shortage of the vaccine needed to protect against the strain. A number of W135 cases have also been diagnosed in Central African Republic and Chad. This poses a setback to the Red Cross in the region which has been effective in fighting the disease, procuring and providing vaccinations to their populations, where possible.
However, the Red Cross have pledged not to turn away from this problem, but to incorporate a response to W135 in their health plans, including promoting self diagnosis. Early response and treatment is being promoted by the Red Cross to counter the lack of availability of the vaccine. Also, volunteer training programmes have been updated to include appropriate health responses to meningitis, including information and awareness campaigns.
Childhood disease, in particular measles, is the leading cause of death of African children. In 2001, eight African Red Cross Societies supported ministries of health by mobilizing more than 8,500 volunteers to reach eight million beneficiaries in a measles vaccination drive. These networks of Red Cross volunteers have been successful in promoting and administering both measles and polio vaccinations.
During vaccination campaigns, Red Cross volunteers disseminated vital information, informing people about the diseases and how and when vaccinations would take place. Volunteer participation was particularly crucial in reaching isolated communities.
Central African governments have congratulated the Red Cross for their active participation in this field and urged them to continue working closely with ministries of health, to eradicate childhood disease.
In central Africa, between five and 14 per cent of the population is HIV positive. For over four years, the eight Red Cross Societies of centralAfrica have conducted HIV/AIDS awareness programmes, including youth peer education, and theatre performances in schools, in businesses and on the streets. They also provide psychological support to people living with HIV/AIDS and teach first aid to families so that they can better care for their sick relatives. The central African Red Cross Societies pledged to continue and expand their HIV/AIDS programmes.