8 August 2014

Africa: Ebola Drug Premature for Africa - Obama

Photo: Tommy Trenchard/IRIN
A government health worker in the MOH-led Kenema Ebola Treatment Centre in Sierra Leone attends to a victim. July 2014.

As health workers across West Africa appealed on Wednesday, 6 August for urgent help in controlling the Ebola Virus Disease that has struck Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia- three countries in the Mano River Union Basin, US President Barack Obama says it is "premature" to send an experimental medicine for the treatment of Ebola to West Africa.

The death toll from the outbreak in the subregion, described as the world's worst ever, has hit 932 with Liberia along recording nearly 300 deaths.

President Obama, chairing a summit of African leaders in Washington, said on Wednesday that he lacks enough information to green-light or approve a promising medicine called ZMapp, already used on two American aid workers recently from Liberia, Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, who saw their conditions improve by varying degrees, according to the US television channel, Cable News Network or CNN.

Reports say the medicine given to Brantly and Writebol was arranged by Samaritan's Purse, based on the consent of individuals, not the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the U.S. government.

"We've got to let the science guide us and I don't think all the information is in on whether this drug is helpful," Obama said. "The Ebola virus, both currently and in the past, is controllable if you have a strong public health infrastructure in place."

The news has been received here with high disappointment, and is likely to dash the hopes of many persons amid recent reports that the US Government was sending 50 doctors to the subregion to help contain the virus that is taking a devastating toll on the respective populations, primarily as a result of poor and weak institutions.

The Obama's statement is said to have left people questioning why something that many have said may have cured the two Americans was given only to them, while the deaths count in West Africa continues to climb.

"This is something that has made our job most difficult," Liberia's assistant minister of health, Tolbert Nyenswah, told the Wall Street Journal, saying, "The population here is asking: "You said there was no cure for Ebola, but the Americans are curing it?"

But President Obama said the affected countries are the first to admit that their public health systems are overwhelmed, and "They weren't able to identify and then isolate cases quickly enough. As a consequence, it spread more rapidly than has been typical with the periodic Ebola outbreaks that occurred previously."

Public health officials should do all they can to contain the outbreak, and during the course of that process, authorities can assess whether new drugs or treatments can be effective, Obama said.

"We're focusing on the public health approach right now, but I will continue to seek information about what we're learning about these drugs going forward," he added.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Wednesday it would ask medical ethics experts to explore emergency use of experimental treatments. President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf on Wednesday declared a state of emergency for 90 days amid an outbreak that shows no signs of slowing.

In a televised speech, she said: "Ignorance and poverty, as well as entrenched religious and cultural practices, continue to exacerbate the spread of the disease."

"The government and people of Liberia require extraordinary measures for the very survival of our state and for the protection of the lives of our people," the Liberian leader stressed.

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