CAPE TOWN, Oct 2 — The Health Department says it is humbled by the work of the members of the South African team who have returned from helping in the fight against the Ebola virus in Sierra Leone.

Speaking at the Third Global Symposium on Health Systems Research here Wednesday, its Director-General, Malebona Matsoso, said the team, who had set up a testing laboratory in the West African country, had done sterling work.

“They are back home safely and we already have another replacement team that left about a week ago. They spent time with them to prepare them,” he said.

“But what is heartening about what they’ve been doing in Sierra Leone is that they’ve been training the Sierra Leone medical technologists and pathologists to take over the lab so that when we withdraw, at least we’ve strengthened their system. They can do the tests themselves.”

The outbreak of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa is a reminder that failure to help countries with weak health systems could impact the whole world. The messages come out of the Symposium that has brought together researchers, policy-makers, funders, implementers and other stakeholders to find ways of making health systems more responsive to the needs of individuals, families and communities.

The American Global AIDS Co-ordinator and Ambassador-at-Large, Dr Deborah Birx, said global health is global. “And you’re only as a global community as strong as the weakest link in that global health connection.”

“I think what this is demonstrating to us is when the health centre system and the healthcare system are functional the way it has been in the past outbreaks in both Uganda and the DRC, there has been a lot of infrastructure strengthening by the host governments often in partnership with donors. There was immediate diagnosis, protection response and treatment available.”

Birx says there wasn’t the same level of response when patients started presenting in the current crisis.

The symposium ends on Friday. Participants will hope to have answered questions on how to make health systems more people centred and to find ways to share cutting-edge research among other achievements.