December 8, 2014 / 11:22 PM / 5 years ago

Ebola gives W. Africa a chance to rebound stronger: UNICEF head

GENEVA (Reuters) - West Africa’s Ebola epidemic may have a silver lining because public health in one of the world’s poorest regions can emerge stronger, the head of the U.N. children’s agency said in an interview on Monday.

“I do believe that will happen in this area. There is now a shock of recognition - of the importance of strong health care systems,” UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake told Reuters.

The Ebola crisis had validated UNICEF’s strategy of helping the poorest and hardest-to-reach areas, which paid “overwhelmingly” better returns than focusing on middle-income areas that were cheaper and easier to help, Lake said.

“Reaching the communities that have been left behind does have the effect of increasing resilience.”

He cited Ethiopia’s ability to cope with a drought after strengthening community health, and Nigeria’s ability to swiftly snuff out Ebola, which he said was due to the networks it built to fight polio. Sierra Leone and Liberia did not have the same systems in place and were unable to stop the deadly virus.

“This could be a silver lining that comes out of the Ebola crisis, because it really does underline very strongly the message about the importance of local health care systems.”

Lake was speaking as the World Health Organization prepared to meet on Wednesday and Thursday to discuss with health and finance ministers how to lay the foundation for post-Ebola healthcare systems.

UNICEF has been building community care centers in the countries hardest hit by Ebola, and Lake said that they will remain after the disease is beaten.

“We are explicitly looking at post-Ebola,” he said, knocking on a wooden table for luck. “The community care centers can be integrated into the primary healthcare system.”

Apart from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, where at least 6,331 have died in the Ebola outbreak, other countries in the region have also got the message about the need to build more robust health care, Lake said.

“This will be a huge lesson learned. I think this has been frightening enough - and is still frightening enough - so it will concentrate others’ minds.”

The key minds are those of governments, he said.

“Getting to governments now, not only to the health ministers, who have been believers all along, but to ministers of finance, to presidents and prime ministers, and saying ‘if you don’t do this...’ is a much more powerful message.”

Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Lisa Shumaker

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