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opinion

Ibrahim Boubacar Keita is the President of Mali

The battle to contain the Ebola outbreak in West Africa is a devastating reminder of what it means to live in fear. For the people of Mali, that fear took a terrifying step closer to home in October, when we experienced our first case of Ebola.

More deaths soon followed, including that of a nurse and a doctor – all the more tragic given that other health workers in Mali had recently been vaccinated as part of an international clinical trial of an Ebola vaccine. Now, as a nation we hold our breath and pray that we can stop the virus from spreading.

But this fear goes beyond the potential lives lost. Long after this outbreak has been brought under control, people in the region will continue to suffer; feeling its impact on trade, agriculture, public health services, human migration and the economy for years to come. This should serve as a wake-up call to us all that infectious disease is not just a consequence of poverty, but a major cause of it as well.

West Africa knows this only too well. It is also no stranger to struggles in the pursuit of universal ideals such as peace, justice and liberty; concepts historically thought to be mainly challenged by the spectre of war. Today, Ebola has taught us that infectious disease is equally capable of ignoring borders and destabilizing regions as any armed conflict. So when the International Organisation of La Francophonie meets in Senegal for its Summit next week there will be no shortage of leaders who know that protection is not just measured by the number of army boots, but also through the strength of public health systems and immunization programs.

This is evident in those countries hardest hit. There, Ebola has proved as destructive as any conflict, cutting deep into the social and economic fabric, undermining progress and setting nations back terribly. Yet, tragic as this crisis is, there are many other infectious diseases that are a constant presence throughout Africa. They create ongoing health crises, crippling nations and claiming hundreds of thousands of lives in the process every year, and yet they are entirely preventable.

Just as sickness impoverishes, health empowers, particularly in the case of our greatest asset, our children. When a child becomes sick, she or he needs medical treatment and care, which cost time and money. By avoiding illness, infants have a greater chance of growing into healthier children who are able to attend school and become more productive members of society. At the same time, instead of needing to care for a sick child and spend money on medical bills, parents can go out to work and boost their income and spending capacity, all of which can help the economy grow.

It is a virtuous cycle that seems so simple, and yet every year hundreds of thousands of children still die needlessly of pneumonia, diarrhoea, measles and other childhood killers, most of which could be prevented through immunization. Vaccines that were previously beyond our reach are now being made available with help from donor countries through organizations like Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. Canada, for example, has been a generous partner in supporting maternal and child health in the developing world, including through childhood immunization. However, if our public health infrastructure is not sufficiently strong, if our supply chains are weak, our cold storage facilities inadequate and our hospitals and healthcare centres understaffed, then we will remain vulnerable to infectious disease.

All this requires investment. In Mali we have worked hard and made great progress in building up our health infrastructure. We have strived to keep health services operating throughout the country even during times of political and military unrest. Since then, with help from UNICEF, the World Health Organization and Gavi, we have built up our health defences by boosting routine immunization coverage and introducing new vaccines, such as rotavirus, providing our young with protection from deadly diseases. We still have far to go. And as Ebola has shown, any reduction in childhood mortality or economic growth can be undone with alarming speed if a country's health systems are not sufficiently robust.

Ultimately there is huge scope and potential for African nations to create political and economic stability never before seen on the continent, which in turn will help reduce our reliance on foreign aid and open up prosperous new markets. But while investment in industries such as transport, communications and energy are to be welcomed, the reality is that until African nations can protect themselves from the scourge of infectious disease, we will always be vulnerable. Together we can create stability and eradicate poverty, but that journey must begin by strengthening immunization and health systems to ensure our people are healthy and our children protected from disease.