Goal: keeping Ebola out of the Africa Cup, the continent’s biggest soccer game

A Miami doctor returns to Africa to help prevent the virus from spreading

A famous footballer once called soccer a matter of life and death, only much more important. He was joking, of course; however for a country not far from where Ebola is still raging out of control, hosting Africa’s largest soccer tournament is serious business. It could be a matter of life and death.

That’s why Florida International University (FIU) Professor Dr. Aileen Marty kicked off the New Year on a plane bound for Equatorial Guinea, site of the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations tournament. The biennial event determines the continental champion and draws thousands of soccer fans from throughout Africa. One of the 16 qualifying teams is the team from Guinea where the current Ebola outbreak originated.

Dr. Aileen Marty and colleague Dr. Stéphane Drenne at Malabo Stadium, Equatorial Guinea prior to the start of the games.

Marty, an infectious disease specialist and expert in mass gathering medicine was part of a World Health Organization Preparedness Support Team (PST) sent to Africa’s only Spanish-speaking country prior to the games opening with the goal of making sure Equatorial Guinea, which has no reported cases, stays free of Ebola.

“I was the team lead for assuring the country had plans in place to prevent, if at all possible, Ebola from coming into the country and failing that to rapidly manage and contain any outbreak and minimize its impact,” said Marty, who teaches at the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine in Miami.
Dr. Marty donning personal protection equipment (PPE) to treat a suspected Ebola case at the airport in Nigeria last August.

This was Marty’s second trip to Africa in less than six months. In August she spent a month in Nigeria helping to contain and eliminate the outbreak there, but the virus continues it’s deadly rampage in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. Ebola has claimed more than 8,000 lives according to the WHO, and fear over the virus looms large over the big soccer event.

“Mass gatherings, where people from many different nations come close together have been a major mechanism for the spread of contagious diseases,” said Marty.

For example, she recalled a major international outbreak of meningitis following the 1987 Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. “Ebola spreads better when an person sick with Ebola encounters more people; that’s why mass gatherings are a serious risk for compounding the problem of Ebola,” she added.

“If a snake bites your neighbor, you too are in danger.” —African Proverb

Morocco, the country originally set to host the Africa Cup was so concerned that the influx of foreign fans could risk spreading the virus; that it asked to have the games postponed. Instead, it was replaced as the host country, and expelled from participating in the event.

The games open Saturday January 17. Algeria is the favorite to win.

“But the entire world wins if we can keep Ebola out of this event,” said Marty.
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