19th-21st October 2016, Monrovia, Liberia
Prof. Russ Stothard
Originally created in 1973, the Manu River Union (MRU) is an intergovernmental institution comprising of Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire. Primarily, the MRU was formed to promote local trade and economic development. Since 2006 its scope has expanded. Today this includes issues related to health policies and practices, specifically in the harmonization of ongoing interventions against neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) as several NTDs cross-borders. A very pertinent example of when cross-border collaboration was crucial was evidenced by management of the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) epidemic. Without a cross-country response in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea the epidemic would not have been curtailed. Nonetheless, the EVD crisis severely shocked the health system and suspended many ongoing interventions against NTDs. Thus for Liberia to host the 9th MRU on NTDs is a testimony to reinstatement of routine activities.
In Liberia, the COUNTDOWN team is a collaboration between the Ministry of Health and University of Liberia-Pacific Institute of Research and Evaluation (UL-PIRE). Each partner was very busy this week in preparations to host the 9th MRU meeting. This brought together just over 90 Anglophone and Francophone delegates, inclusive of the MRU secretariat and many representatives of those practicing NTD control in West Africa and elsewhere beyond. We were delighted to represent COUNTDOWN as part of the international partners and were well-placed to assist the Liberian team. In addition to the standing MRU agenda, this 9th MRU meeting was especially significant for it marked the formal launches of the Liberian COUNTDOWN programme and the Integrated NTDs Case Management Programme as well as the inauguration of the first Liberian NTD Ambassador Dr Everlyn Kandakai.
The strategic plan for integrated case management of NTDs is the first of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa. Clearly Liberia is forging ahead and should be much congratulated in its efforts. Alongside patient management of Buruli ulcer, leprosy and yaws, detection and surgical-interventions against hydrocele, a complication of lymphatic filariasis, were reported. Over the years the LSTM-FPSU, as supported by DFID-UK, has played a major role in assisting Liberia to develop an action plan for management of hydrocele. This was reported at the meeting by Brent Thomas.
At the start of the MRU meeting we were all very touched by a personal testimony given to us by Annie Toweh, a young girl who had had a very extensive Buruli ulcer lesion. She much benefited from the closer attention to this condition and had undergone treatment with skin-grafting; we were happy to see that she was well on the road to recovery and gaining a normal life.
The role of the NTD ambassador is primarily to promote activities of the NTD programme, especially in supporting the interface between ministries and promoting appropriate communications and messaging to and from disease-endemic communities. Dr Kandakai has had an outstanding career in shaping education in Liberia from tertiary to primary levels and wished to bring her skills to ensure that the education sector fully embraces the activities of the NTD programme.
A key channel of communication is the weekly 45-minutes health promotion slot on national radio. This is broadcast across the nation on 99.9 FM and on Tuesday, I took part in a radio interview with Karsor Kollie (MoH COUNTDOWN) and Miatta Sonkarlay Sonkarley, (Map International). During discussions I was able to highlight Laura Dean’s recent work with UL-PIRE which is now ready to start fieldwork this coming month in Bong and Maryland Counties, respectively and we look forward to their findings.
As Kate Hawkins once told us, in COUNTDOWN communications should be everyone’s business. Team Liberia has now established a twitter account @COUNTDOWNLR and was active throughout the MRU meeting tweeting and taking notes. This helped to provide two recap sessions at the start of each day as well as drafting the 12 formal recommendations forthcoming the deliberations from the meeting. With regards to the recommendation of establishing an effective communication strategy to address NTDs implementation programme, it is therefore very fitting that COUNTDOWN is helping Liberia to develop an inclusive strategy. This will also be adopted in due course by other MRU countries so we have a lot to expect from the 10th MRU meeting to be held in Guinea.