January 15, 2015

The pivotal role of MSF in global health

Life in Crisis: The Ethical Journey of Doctors Without Borders
MSF: how a humanitarian charity found itself leading the world’s response to Ebola

I've just finished reading a book on MSF, a compelling story of more than 4 decades of support in health and humanitarian crisis.
Life in Crisis tells the story of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and its effort to save lives on a global scale. Begun in 1971 as a French alternative to the Red Cross, MSF has grown into an international institution with a reputation for outspoken protest as well as technical efficiency. It has also expanded beyond emergency response, providing for a wider range of endeavors, including AIDS care. Yet its seemingly simple ethical goal proves deeply complex in practice. MSF continually faces the problem of defining its own limits. Its minimalist form of care recalls the promise of state welfare, but without political resolution or a sense of well-being beyond health and survival. Lacking utopian certainty, the group struggles when the moral clarity of crisis fades. Nevertheless, it continues to take action and innovate. Its organizational history illustrates both the logic and the tensions of casting humanitarian medicine into a leading role in international affairs.
Their achievements are really impressive and nobody can imagine what could have happened this year with the Ebola outbreak without them. To understand their contribution I would like to recommend the article in BMJ:
 The charity had a team in Guinea when the outbreak began in March and has followed the virus as it has spread—building treatment centres in locations as disparate as the jungle and capital cities, deploying mobile units, providing technical support to governments, and training staff. Today MSF has more than 3400 staff on the ground (with one international staff member for every 10 local staff members) and says that it has cared for almost 4000 patients confirmed to have Ebola and many more suspected cases.
 We all have to appreciate their enormous work in such a difficult conditions and their example offers a good guide to understand that beyond governments, well organised nonprofit institutions play a critical role in supporting public health.

PS. I am quite concerned about the nurse's behaviour in the spanish ebola case. Yesterday she admitted that she hadn't told the physician about her exposure to an ebola case. This situation has strong ethical implications, does anybody care about it?