WESTPORT, Conn. -- A top crisis manger for the United Nations and a Westport native explained in a recent talk in his hometown about how his program all but eliminated the deadly Ebola virus from West Africa after a outbreak caused worldwide fear last year.
Anthony Banbury is the U.N. deputy Ebola coordinator and operation crisis manager. He talked to the Y’s Men of Weston and Westport about the outbreak and spread of Ebola in three adjoining West African countries. Banbury is a graduate of Tufts University and its Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
Ebola is a virus carried by animals and transmitted through bodily fluids—such as blood or saliva. But Ebola is not an airborne disease.
The outbreak began in late December 2013, Banbury said, when a young boy in Guinea who had played in an area littered with Fruit Bat droppings became “patient zero” in the deadly outbreak. The chain of transmission began when family members treated him. The first active case was confirmed in late March 2014.
In late April 2014, a midwife in another Guinean village also succumbed to Ebola. Women from surrounding villages gathered to prepare her body for burial. As is their custom, they bathed, kissed and touched the body. This created a “super spreader” event that initiated an exponential increase in deaths once these caregivers returned home, Banbury said.
In early August, the World Health Organization called it a “public health emergency.”
No world leaders spoke out on the crisis until President Barack Obama called for Ebola’s eradication in early August.
One month later, U.S. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon named Banbury its crisis manager. He quickly assembled a team of 50 UN people, sorted through the available information, then set up his operation in Accra, Ghana.
Projections were dire, Banbury said. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicted in mid-September that 1.4 million people would be infected by January 2015. A month later, the World Health Organization projected 10,000 cases per week by year’s end, with a death rate of 50 percent to 70 percent. Fear of spread to the U.S. as aide workers became ill and returned for treatment.
But Banbury’s team began to turn the tide after an early October conference convened to coordinate the actions of 100 organizations whose individual programs had been collectively ineffective. To end the crisis, scientists told them they had to break the chain of transmission by isolating new cases and assuring safe burials, he said.
By the year's end, the projected 10,000 weekly cases was reduced to 500. Today, Liberia is essentially Ebola free, Sierra Leone records about 10 new cases a week, and Guinea about 25.
The U.N. team succeeded, and “the risk of inexorable spread throughout Africa and beyond is basically over,” Banbury said.
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