(GIN) – The U.N. Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) is calling on multilateral institutions and governments to cancel the debts of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, to give them “breathing space” to address the region’s economic challenges.

All three countries are ranked in the bottom 15 in the U.N.’s Human Development Index.

“West Africa needs debt relief,” said Eric LeCompte, Executive Director of the debt relief organization Jubilee USA. “Debt relief will not only fight Ebola, it will also provide a long-term investment in healthcare for the countries.”

Calls to lift the region’s onerous debt burden were first heard last year as Ebola ran its deadly course.  In November, Washington called for 100 million dollars in debt relief. The International Monetary Fund is considering a 300 million dollars financing package that could include debt relief.

As an example of the pain inflicted by foreign debt, Guinea, where the outbreak began, has spent more money paying down its debt than on public health. All three countries have poverty rates above 50percent.

Meanwhile, a large-scale trial of two potential Ebola vaccines has begun in Liberia as part of a global effort to prevent a repeat of the epidemic that has killed nearly 9,000 people in West Africa.

The study got under way Monday at a hospital in the capital, Monrovia, with about 600 volunteers taking part in the first phase.

The trial – a collaboration between the U.S. and Liberia – involves two Ebola vaccines that contain harmless fragments of the virus that trigger an immune response.  The drugs were developed by GlaxoSmithKline, and Merck are said to be safe for use in humans.

Liberian health official Dr. Fredrick Ketty said this was a chance to make history. “A small country that would have been completely wiped out because of Ebola now is turning the reverse to saving the entire world. Can you imagine?” he asked.

The study, led by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, aims to enlist a total of around 27,000 healthy men and women for the trial.

More than 22,000 people have been infected, although the number of new cases has dropped sharply to the hundreds in recent weeks.

Elsewhere, a new head of the African division for the World Health Organization has vowed to make her office more response to emerging threats.

Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, a 35-year veteran of public health and native of Botswana, takes over from Luis Gomes Sambo, who left under a cloud for allegedly botching the agency’s initial response to the epidemic.

Moeti, approved last week for the position, said one of her first tasks will be to restructure and organize the size of the response teams and their skills.

Dr. Peter Piot, one of the discoverers of the Ebola virus and a vocal critic of the WHO response to the disease, praised Moeti’s appointment.

“The Ebola crisis has highlighted the urgent need for strengthened WHO capacity in Africa,” said Piot, who heads the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, where Moeti graduated from.

“I believe that Dr. Moeti is a public health leader who can transform WHO’s Regional Office into the type of institution Africa and the world need.” w/pix of protest by the Jubilee group

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