Continuing Ebola vaccine research is still an urgent need

June 30, 2017 by Monica Amponsah

It has been five weeks since the latest Ebola outbreak and we are still holding our breaths. Four people died in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (one confirmed case and three suspected cases of the Ebola virus); eight people have been infected. Although the cases were found in a remote area of the country, it is a constant reminder that Ebola is still with us and can spread beyond African borders.

When the news first broke, I immediately had flashbacks to the sheer fear we felt in Ghana when the word “Ebola” was spoken. Living in West Africa, where the largest Ebola epidemic in history took place, the news underscored the urgent need to continue Ebola vaccine research.

As a regional program manager for Grameen Foundation, working on an Ebola vaccine trial in Sierra Leone, I hear and witness the devastation the disease can have on families, communities and the country. I remember stories being told of how Ebola changed the core of society in how people even greeting one another. No hugs, no handshakes, and snapping of the fingers in the famous West African style. People felt disconnected.

The Ebola vaccine Deployment, Acceptance and Compliance (EBODAC) project in Sierra Leone is working with and supporting the EBOVAC-Salone clinical trial which is testing a new candidate vaccine. The EBODAC project is a public-private consortium funded by Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) to test how communication, community engagement and technologies can be used to increase community involvement in the trials of promising vaccines in outbreak situations and the launch/deployment of a successful vaccine.

 As part of that consortium, Grameen Foundation has developed a mobile technology platform to enable communication and support community engagement with trial participants, and eventually a wider deployment of a licensed vaccine. The platform sends alerts to trial participants via mobile phone in the language of their choice, reminding them of their clinical visits (alerts are available in five languages, including English). The clinical team also receives updates on client visits, which helps them to manage clinic activities, including screening participants for the trial and follow-up vaccinations and check-ups for those already in the trial.

Grameen Foundation together with the consortium partners, will also pilot a mobile training and support service to train community health workers in Sierra Leone on the Ebola virus, vaccinations and other topics via mobile phone. Community health workers are volunteers. They live and work in mostly rural areas, making them ideal for disseminating health information to remote populations.

The last Ebola epidemic stole 11,000 lives in West Africa, many of them health workers, and brought national economies to a standstill.  We are determined to never experience that type of devastating loss again.

As Professor Peter Piot, who helped to discover the Ebola virus during the outbreak of 1976, noted at the recent EBODAC Symposium: “We should never forget and must honor our commitment to the people who died during Ebola. We need to finish the job.”