National / Science & Health

Japanese doctor-turned-diplomat describes work fighting Ebola in Ghana

by Kazuhiro Kuge

Kyodo

When the government dispatched Shiro Konuma to Ghana in December as the first official from the Foreign Ministry to join the U.N. health mission tackling the Ebola outbreak, he was somewhat surprised.

“I felt puzzled (to receive the assignment), but I also thought it should be my job as I have a doctor’s license,” the 47-year-old official said during a brief return to Tokyo.

“I worked in Ghana always keeping in mind that there are people to save,” said Konuma, who now is assigned to the Japanese Embassy in South Africa following his three-month stint in Ghana.

“West Africa is getting out of the critical situation but needs a solid medical system that can deal with Ebola and other diseases,” he said. “Japan with its extensive knowledge can contribute to building such a system.”

Konuma was senior coordinator of the First Africa Division in the Foreign Ministry but had little field experience and had never lived in Africa.

As a senior adviser to the U.N. Mission for Ebola Emergency Response based in Ghana, Konuma assessed if more preventive steps were required and what medical emergency goods should be provided to which hospital.

He also visited medical institutions in neighboring Ebola-hit nations in West Africa, including Liberia and Sierra Leone, to find out if they needed more emergency goods.

Konuma said his mission was hampered by rumors that foreign organizations were responsible for the epidemic.

“Some people did not trust us and our activities were thwarted,” he said. “It was difficult to gain understanding for our mission.”

A native of Yokohama, Konuma finished medical school but opted to be a diplomat, inspired by foreign affairs books he read when he was in university.

“Since the Foreign Ministry deals with broad issues, I thought what I learned at the medical school would also be of some help,” he said. “I would like to use the experience from the mission in my future career.”