MCC Photo/Ben Munongo

Iyeni Mfutila is a nurse at Kanzombi Hospital, operated by the Mennonite Brethren Church in the town of Kikwit, in Bandundu province, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “Before the Menno-Santé project helped us to remodel our new hospital ward," Mfutila said, "we had to put patients with all different kinds of problems together in one cramped ward. Today, with this new, remodeled ward, our patients are cared for in acceptable conditions. And those of us who provide care for the sick are very happy with our new working conditions. We say a big thank you to Menno-Santé.”

The ongoing Ebola outbreak in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea has exposed one of the biggest challenges many developing countries face: weak public health care systems.

In many African countries, health worker shortages and scarce funding for building and maintaining health care facilities are constant challenges facing hospitals and clinics. An additional challenge is the lack of good health information systems to help health workers prepare to handle health threats such as Ebola.

One of the consequences of the current Ebola epidemic is that other infectious diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS are being neglected. As Ebola continues to overwhelm hospitals and clinics, people are afraid to seek health care services for fear of contracting Ebola. Furthermore, many of these facilities are not sufficiently equipped to take in non-Ebola patients.

The World Health Organization estimates that 3,500 people have died as a result of the current Ebola outbreak. By way of comparison, more than 600,000 people die from malaria every year, 90 percent of them in sub-Saharan Africa.

Public health experts worry that the death rate from malaria and other prevalent infectious diseases will increase, due to the additional health care challenges created by the Ebola epidemic.

For years the U.S. and other wealthy governments have purported to help developing countries build up health systems that can handle these types of infections before they become epidemic.

However, this work has been hampered by a lack of will, insufficient resources from individual governments, and years of restrictive policies imposed on these countries through institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Mennonite Central Committee works to improve health conditions in various communities around the world. This work includes supporting medical clinics and providing health training.

Clearly, the Ebola crisis in West Africa needs and deserves increased attention from governments, international and regional institutions, hospitals, and health care workers. We must not, however, lose sight of the long-term needs for strong health systems that can sustainably handle this type of epidemic and others.

Patricia Kisare was Legislative Associate for International Affairs at the MCC Washington Office. Printed with permission from Third Way Café.  Originally printed on August 28, 2014.