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In Sickness and in Health
China stands by Africa against Ebola and other disease outbreaks and plans to do more
By Li Xiaoyu | ChinAfrica December 2015

Chinese medical projects are making a difference in Africa

Wang Lihui, head nurse at the China-aided Ebola diagnosis and treatment center in Liberian capital Monrovia, will never forget that incident last winter when she and her team battled through the night to save the life of a former Liberian national table tennis player.

The patient, brought to the center in a critical condition, needed blood urgently but it was difficult to locate a vein for transfusion. The medical team finally succeeded when it was morning and thankfully, the patient was saved.

"Time stood still for us that night," Wang said, recalling the ordeal. "We were intent on saving the patient. Even though there was only a slender thread of hope, we were committed to doing our best."

The date was December 29, 2014. From March that year, Ebola had begun to spread in West Africa - in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone with a lower incidence in Nigeria and Mali. The outbreak was declared an international health emergency by the World Health Organization (WHO). According to WHO statistics, as of December 5, 2014, there were 17,517 reported infection cases and 6,187 deaths from Ebola worldwide.

Back in Liberia, on January 12, three patients recovered and were released from the China-aided Ebola diagnosis and treatment center, becoming its first group of patients to be successfully treated for the virus. It was a morale booster for the Chinese People's Liberation Army's medical team that was still stationed in Monrovia when many other aid teams had pulled out. It had been a grueling time for the Chinese team which had arrived in Liberia on November 15, 2014. In addition to a scorching summer, they had to face the virus at its peak. It was both a physical and mental challenge, especially as there were little ready facilities and they had to begin their work from scratch.

Since the Ebola outbreak last year, China has sent assistance worth $120 million and over 1,200 medical workers to 13 countries in and around the areas affected. In Sierra Leone, one of the worst affected countries, Chinese medical workers built laboratories to diagnose bacterial diseases. Additionally, the Chinese Government sent more than 30 groups of public health experts to 11 African countries, including Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. They trained 12,000 African medical workers to tackle infectious diseases.

In August 2015 while visiting Sierra Leone, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at a press conference that when helping Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea combat the Ebola epidemic, China was the first to offer assistance and created several "firsts." Chinese President Xi Jinping was the first to make a positive response and announced several rounds of assistance after the heads of the three African states called for international assistance. The large chartered plane sent by China transported the first batch of emergency anti-epidemic materials most needed in the three countries. China for the first time sent medical corps overseas, for the first time built a mobile bio-laboratory overseas and for the first time set up an infectious disease medical center in another country.

Since the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, this has been the Chinese Government's biggest and longest-running foreign aid to combat a public health crisis. The initiative won high praise from the countries affected as well as the international community.

A new chapter

The history of Chinese medical teams in Africa goes back more than 50 years ago. After Algeria gained independence from French colonization in 1962, French doctors were evacuated from the North African country. In January 1963, at the request of Algeria's Ministry of Health, China sent a medical team to cope with the emergency and a new chapter in the history of China's foreign medical aid began.

According to the National Health and Family Planning Commission (NHFPC) of China, the government has sent over 24,000 medical workers to Africa during the past 52 years. In the line of duty, 51 Chinese medical workers died in Africa.

African countries are seeking to develop their healthcare services. In 2001, African Union members meeting in Abuja, Nigeria, pledged to use at least 15 percent of revenue to develop healthcare institutions and improve medical facilities. The establishment of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in 2000 was a shot in the arm for China-Africa medical and health cooperation. "China-Africa medical and health cooperation has expanded," said Ren Minghui, Director General, Department of International Cooperation at NHFPC. "It includes helping African countries establish medical facilities, providing essential drugs and other medical supplies, and training African medical workers."

As part of the commitments made in the Beijing Action Plan (2007-09) formulated during the First FOCAC Summit in Beijing in 2006, the Chinese Government constructed 30 hospitals in African countries between 2007 and 2009. China also allocated 300 million yuan ($46.2 million) to set up 30 malaria treatment centers in Africa. Between 2010 and 2012, China provided medical facilities and antimalarial medicine worth about $500 million. Since 2013, the Chinese Government has built 38 medical facilities in Africa and provided medical equipment and supplies in 50 batches.

To address medical workers' shortage in Africa, the Chinese Government has been training African doctors, nurses and other public health workers. At the Second Ministerial Forum for China-Africa Health Development in Cape Town in October, Li Bin, NHFPC Minister, said China has trained over 2,100 health management staff and medical workers for African countries since 2013. "China has helped African countries improve their capacity to develop their healthcare sector independently through technological cooperation, healthcare technology transfers and sending volunteers," she said.

African Development Bank statistics show Sub-Saharan Africa's pharmaceutical factories are mainly in South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya. The average access to medicines in most African countries is low. Diseases such as AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis are still prevalent on the continent. Take malaria as an example, it is still prevalent in 42 countries in Africa; of the world malarial patients, Africans account for 90 percent.

Beating malaria

Chinese medical scientist Tu Youyou researched traditional Chinese medicine and discovered extracts from the sweet wormwood plant - artemisinin, known as qinghaosu in Chinese - could be used to treat malaria. The discovery has saved millions of lives and won her the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine this year.

Since 2007, the Chinese Government has allocated 80 million yuan ($12.6 million) to make artemisinin available in Africa. The Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine sent medical teams to Comoros thrice - in 2007, 2012 and 2013 - for rapid malaria eradication using artemisinin-based treatment. Subsequently, in 2014, Comoros recorded zero death from malaria for the first time and the number of malaria cases dropped by 98 percent.

Minister Li said China should work more closely with African countries in medicine and healthcare to build a multi-level and comprehensive cooperation partnership. In the next three year, China will support Chinese medical enterprises to run joint-venture projects in African countries, transferring technologies and providing reliable and affordable vaccines, other medical products and equipment.

After Ebola

"The outbreak of Ebola in West Africa made the international community realize that we need to help African countries construct hospitals and laboratories," Jin Xiaotao, NHFPC Vice Minister, said at the International Conference on Africa's Fight Against Ebola in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, in July. "We also need to help them upgrade their public healthcare system and public health emergency management mechanism, and prevention and control system."

In October, the Chinese Government donated $2 million to WHO's emergency fund and $5 million to the UN's Ebola Response Fund.

Minister Li said China has a wealth of experience in tackling health emergencies which could be helpful for others. More than 10 years after the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in China, the country has strengthened its public healthcare system and improved its emergency response ability. Currently, China's national healthcare system covers 95 percent of its population. The government aims to achieve basic healthcare cover for all citizens by 2020. Since Agenda 2063, the AU's roadmap for Africa's development, also emphasizes the importance of an efficient public healthcare system and universal access to basic medical services, "public healthcare system construction should be the core of China-Africa health cooperation," Li said. 

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