Via CIDRAP, Robert Roos writes: Migrations in West Africa seen as challenge to stopping Ebola. Excerpt:
In much of West Africa, the annual harvest ends around October, and in the following months, countless young men hit the road to look for work elsewhere, such as on cocoa and coffee plantations in Ivory Coast or in fishing ports on the coast, according to people who know the region.
That post-harvest migration is a prime example of the high mobility of the region's population. National borders are porous and don't mean a whole lot, and people cross them freely, by all accounts. And that fact worries some observers who are pondering the challenge of stopping the Ebola epidemic simmering in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.
With a high level of travel between the three hard-hit countries and their neighbors, these observers reason, there's a very good chance that travelers or migrants will bring more Ebola cases into other countries, such as Senegal, Mali, and Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), potentially triggering expansion of the epidemic.
"I think it's a real problem, and I don't think it's been factored into the paradigm of how this is likely to spread," said Peter Strzok of Pinehurst, N.C., who has spent much of his life in West Africa and founded his own nonprofit organization, the Agency to Facilitate the Growth of Rural Organizations.
So far, Senegal has had one Ebola case, and Mali has had at least four (two confirmed and two probable); all of these had links to Guinea. The Senegal case, which surfaced in August, didn't spark any further transmission, but the Mali cases are very recent, and contacts are being monitored.
Rainfall patterns dictate timing
Strzok said most people in West Africa are farmers, and their schedule is governed by the rainy season, from May to October. Once the rains are sufficient, everyone plants crops, such as rice, sorghum, millet, peas, and peanuts. Once the crops are in, many men leave home to find temporary work, and they return to harvest the crops in August and September, he explained.
After the harvest, many young men again take to the roads seeking work, Strzok said. "They've been doing this for 1,000 or 2,000 years," he said. "We have literally tens of thousands of young men, 16 and up, leaving wherever they are and their home villages and going elsewhere to find employment."
Borders pose little obstacle to the travelers, he said. They may take back roads or trails and avoid border checkpoints, he said. Even where there are border stations, "The people at the borders are pretty much indifferent to these kids."
Another factor is that residents of countries in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) don't need visas to cross borders within that zone, said Victoria Coifman, PhD, a University of Minnesota historian in the African American/African Studies Department who specializes in West Africa.
Strzok said the young men who go abroad seeking work often travel in groups. "They sleep and eat together; it's a very communal, tight relationship." If one of them contracted Ebola, it could easily spread to the others, he suggested.
"These activities are a reality, and I've seen nothing in the discussion [of the epidemic] about the informal traditional migration patterns," he said.