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China rushes help to Ebola-hit countries

Source:China Daily Africa

Joseph Catanzaro and Chen Yingqun

Updated: 2014-10-24

 China rushes help to Ebola-hit countries

A Chinese medical worker demonstrates equipment to test body temperature at the China-Sierra Leone Friendship Hospital in Freetown. Huang Xianbin / Xinhua

 China rushes help to Ebola-hit countries

Equipment and materials for a mobile laboratory from China arrive at the airport in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Xinhua

Deep inside the utilitarian-looking compound that is the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Beijing, on a blustery March morning, He Xiong sat down at his computer to go through his daily ritual of checking the World Health Organization website for alerts.

"When I first saw that Ebola had broken out in several different African countries, my first reaction was to think this is not particularly terrible," He says. "But even then I thought it wasn't good, because it involved different countries, having crossed borders."

The deputy-director of the Beijing CDC, He is a front-line veteran of China's battle with SARS, the deadly virus first reported in Asia in February 2003. It killed 774 people worldwide and struck down about 8,000 with symptoms, says the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, before it was contained in 2003 thanks to a massive effort.

It was with this on his mind that He picked up the phone and started making calls.

"I started talking with colleagues and friends who work in the same field as me," he says. "They were concerned about the outbreak, too."

Concern quickly turned into momentum. No one else in China's Ministry of Health had forgotten SARS, either. The specter of the 21st century's first big epidemic still loomed large.

Within days He was sitting in on high-level meetings called by the Ministry of Health.

"The discussion was about the Ebola virus," he says. "We were talking and also thinking about how we could help Africa with it."

Half a world away, where people were becoming infected and dying in Guinea and Sierra Leone, shortly before Liberia would be added to the list of countries where the deadly virus was appearing, He and his colleagues realized it was time for backroom talks to be turned into action.

China's leaders had come to the same conclusion. At the highest echelons of power in Beijing, Ebola had grabbed the attention of policymakers who recalled the struggle to stop the spread of SARS in their country.

With China strongly linked to West Africa by ties of trade and diplomacy and friendship, with the knowledge that borders are porous in a highly connected world and a viral threat to one is a viral threat to all, the course of action was clear.

"China and Africa have a very good relationship, and Africans have contributed a lot to China," He says. "We wanted to support and help as much as we could."

Chinese officials made it clear very early on that in this battle, Africans would not be left to fight alone.

"Beijing has been sending teams to Guinea to offer medical support for many years, as the medical system and resources there are poor," He says. "So we immediately got some information from our people on the ground.

"We knew that if the disease took hold in many places it would be difficult to control as the medical infrastructure in Africa is not that good. So as soon the world started to report on the disease, we began thinking about coping mechanisms."

In April, the same month the aid organization Medecins Sans Frontieres issued a dire warning about the unprecedented nature of the outbreak and a panicked mob attacked a treatment center in southeastern Guinea, China announced it would send its first shipment of medical supplies to West Africa, about a million yuan ($160,000) worth of medicine and equipment to help with disease control, prevention and treatment in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea-Bissau.

This was even though a World Health Organization spokesman was quoted at the time as saying the outbreak was "relatively small still".

By May, when the first shipment of medical supplies from China arrived, the WHO had confirmed the first Ebola death in Sierra Leone. By June 17 the virus had reached the Liberian capital, Monrovia. Six days later, the death toll had risen to 350 and officially become the worst Ebola outbreak on record.

Medecins Sans Frontieres warnings became more urgent and it declared the virus "out of control".

In China, Africans were beginning to feel another symptom of the virus: the pain of loved ones lost.

Model and entertainer Mariatu Kargbo, a former Miss Sierra Leone who has become a prominent singer and philanthropist in China after making it her second home, was devastated when she learned that a good friend and fellow model from Liberia had died from the virus.

Bad news from home is becoming a tragically common story for many Africans in China, she says. And with 20,000 Chinese nationals said to be living in the three worst affected countries, the fear for loved ones is not confined to their community, either.

"There are so many people here who have lost loved ones and friends," Kargbo says. "It affects everyone from all walks of life."

That is a message she has been trying to drive home in China, and she says people are now listening.

Early on, Kargbo began fundraising for the World Food Program's drive to help Ebola-affected countries, and in two events she raised a total of $70,000. All donors were ordinary Chinese, she says.

"We have received a lot of support. In one way it is about SARS. Chinese people understand (what Africa is going through). But it's not just about SARS. It's cultural. The Chinese always like to help. And they want a good relationship with Africa."

Kargbo now hopes to make it into the Guinness World Records for getting the most people to donate to a charity online in the shortest time. She is now planning that event and is counting on the generosity of Chinese people.

"We are going to distribute a lot of bags of rice and medicine in Sierra Leone," she says. "The Chinese are really supportive. These are ordinary people who are giving money."

Ada Yang is a designer and artist from Sierra Leone who lives in Beijing with her Chinese husband, the artist Yang Yan.

Tears rolled down her face as she recalled the moment her mother told her Ebola had claimed the life of one of her friends back home. The pain became ever deeper when she heard a second friend had died, and a third, and a fourth.

"Now, six of my friends have died from the disease."

Yang and her husband have since channeled their pain to motivate their efforts to help. They have held several charity events in China that have garnered strong support from artists, companies and the public at large.

To date, the couple have raised $300,000 through their charitable organization, the Queennak Foundation.

"Many Chinese people have been very helpful," Yang says. "We have launched several events, with friends donating paintings we can auction, and others volunteering to help with the organization. My husband and I auctioned some paintings. Some big companies, such as China Mobile, have also been very supportive and donated money. The money we have raised has paid for thermometers, masks and protective clothing."

The foundation has also donated 300 bags of rice, 100 dozen bottles of antiseptic liquid, 200 20-liter cans of cooking oil, 50 cartons of noodles and 100 cartons of soap that have been distributed to Ebola-ravaged countries.

In August the epidemic accelerated, and the first known cases of infected US, British and Spanish citizens were reported. The Democratic Republic of Congo and Senegal logged their first cases. The WHO declared that the epidemic had gone from being an African problem to an "international public health emergency" and put the total death toll at more than 1,000, then raised it to more than 1,550 within weeks, prompting the organization to warn that as many as 20,000 people may be infected before the crisis is contained.

At the highest levels in China, decisions were being made. On Aug 7, Beijing said it would provide 30 million yuan in aid to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea to help combat the effects of the outbreak.

It was welcome news for concerned Africans in China.

"Ebola is not only in Africa now," Kargbo says. "It's out of Africa, it's out in the world and its the world's problem."

Cao Guang, a member of a rotating team of medics that China has been stationing in Guinea since the late 1960s, was cleared of infection in August after doing his part to fight what he calls the war on Ebola. He had touched a patient's eyelids with his bare hands during treatment. Unlike some other countries, China said the 38-person medical team would not be evacuated, but would instead stay to help.

On Aug 13, Chinese medical supplies arrived in Monrovia followed closely by another three Chinese medical teams dispatched across West Africa to help with prevention and treatment.

The perils they face are clear. Of the thousands who have contracted Ebola, 443 have been healthcare workers, and 244 of them have died.

The Chinese medical teams are the product of a national health system that has felt the brunt of a deadly viral outbreak and learned from it, He says.

"SARS made China react sensitively to Ebola," he says. "That is, we know we need to pay attention to it and give it the proper emphasis.

"I think after SARS, our tolerance for viruses and diseases is lower than that of other countries. We do not underestimate these things because we remember the tragedy here. Our health system now has good testing equipment and good front-line medical workers. Since SARS, we have focused on giving our people front-line training and worked on improving their skills. The experience SARS provided is what we are using to help Africa."

By last month, the number of Chinese medical workers dispatched to West Africa had reached more than 170.

In late September, with the death toll climbing to 3,091 dead of 6,574 probable, suspected and confirmed cases, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came out with a worst-case scenario that estimated between 550,000 and 1.4 million people in West Africa could be infected by January.

The United States and Britain pledged more aid and manpower to help, and China's Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, reiterated China would continue to stand with Africa in the fight against Ebola.

On a trip to Tianjin early this month, Premier Li Keqiang backed that message of support, saying China would "fight side by side" with West Africa to combat the virus.

On an official state visit to India in September, President Xi Jinping pledged more money to support the global fight against the virus.

"We will continue to work together with the international community to fight against the Ebola epidemic," he said.

The aid he announced, worth 200 million yuan, will go to West African countries including Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

Earlier this month, with the WHO's estimates rising to 4,033 people dead of 8,399 cases in seven countries, China announced it was preparing to send another medical team to the region.

"The team consists of 100 medical workers mainly from the General Hospital of the People's Liberation Army Chengdu Military Region," said Li Yong, the hospital's medical team leader and medical department director.

"It is larger than the first team and has more professionals from the infectious diseases department."

Ten members of the group were involved in efforts to tackle SARS in 2003, and 14 took part in a UN peacekeeping mission in Lebanon.

China rushes help to Ebola-hit countries

This was followed more recently by an announcement from Sihuan Pharmaceutical Holdings Group that, in a joint effort with the Chinese Academy of Military Medical Sciences, it would seek to fast-track testing and approval for an experimental drug called JK-05. It is one of several potential Ebola cures or vaccines being tested worldwide.

In recent days the WHO put the death toll at 4,877 people of 9,936 cases, but says these figures may greatly understate the number of cases.

China also donated another $6 million toward the World Food Program aimed at staving off shortages and hunger in the worst-hit African countries. The progam's representative in China, Brett Rierson, reportedly said the funds would cover a month of emergency rations for 300,000 people.

Back at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Beijing, He Xiong says the crisis may be continuing, but so is China's support.

The country has not forgotten the horror of an endemic virus or the need to pull together to fight it.

With a number of suspected cases and some confirmed infections cropping up worldwide, He says China is being extra vigilant for Ebola, but has not suspended travel.

For Fang Bo of Beijing, the horrible memories of the SARS outbreak are still fresh. In April 2003, his sister-in-law and wife went out one night. By the time they came home, both were running a fever.

Fang's sister-in-law died in hospital on April 15.

"My wife died on April 28," he says.

He and eight others in his family contracted SARS. By the time the virus was done, seven of his loved ones were dead.

Fang, who has been left frail and sickly, has closely followed the news about Ebola and has words of advice.

"Pay great attention to the disease, learn about its causes and the way it spreads so you are able to find out as early as possible if you are at risk. If you are affected, you should look for treatment. If my family and I had not sought treatment it's unlikely any of us would have survived."

Yang, the artist, says irrespective of whether or not Ebola reaches China, the heartache it brings is being felt in the country, as is the resolve to fight it.

"I think of my family back there and I am afraid," she says. "I cry thinking of people back home suffering. I really appreciate what China has done for us. They send people there, many doctors. I am very happy about it. China is making a difference. It means a lot. Whatever happens, China is still by our side and helping us."

Xinhua, Reuters and reporter Shan Juan contributed to this story.

 China rushes help to Ebola-hit countries

Workers disinfect their hands at a Sinopec oil drilling operation in Uganda to prevent the danger of infection. Provided to China Daily

 China rushes help to Ebola-hit countries

People pass by Ebola virus health warning signs in the city of Monrovia, Liberia, on Aug 17. Liberian officials fear Ebola could soon spread through the capital's largest slum after residents raided a quarantine center for suspected patients. Abbas Dulleh / AP

(China Daily Africa Weekly 10/24/2014 page6)

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