3 September 2014

West Africa: Ebola Epidemic 'Racing Ahead' of Response - Obama to Raise during NATO Summit

Photo: Girls as Partners
Volunteer organizations, such as Girls as Partners, spread Ebola awareness in Liberia. AllAfrica's Patience Dalieh handed out fliers at a Monrovia school before donating buckets and disinfectants to area churches and mosques.

President Obama will discuss the Ebola emergency when he participates in the NATO summit in Wales this week.

Gayle Smith of the U.S. National Security Council, a White House agency, gave that assurance in response to a question from AllAfrica at a telephone media briefing Wednesday aimed at African news organizations. Elements of the exchange:

Question: The NATO summit in Wales has a packed agenda, but given that the CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) director, Dr. (Tom) Frieden, has called Ebola a looming world economic and security catastrophe, is President Obama going to raise the need for a more aggressive global response in Wales?

Smith: Yes, the president has consistently been raising the need for a ramped up response to the Ebola outbreak in all of his engagements. The national security advisor Susan Rice has been doing the same thing, and Secretary [of State John] Kerry, and they will continue to do so. There are multiple opportunities to do that both in terms of bilateral engagements but also a number of multilateral venues. So, yes, we will continue at the highest levels of government to [ask others to] join us in what must be a very accelerated and expanded response.

While Smith stopped short of saying that Ebola would be on the official NATO agenda, pressure has been growing on international organizations and governments to scale up a global effort.

Some of that pressure is coming from within the U.S. government. Dr. Tom Kanyon, the director of the CDC's Center for Global Health, also on the media briefing, said that this Ebola epidemic is "unlike anything we've ever seen before on a scale that we've never seen before. We need concerted action fast."

Kanyon said the epidemic's spread is "outpacing our response". He warned that the window of opportunity to get ahead of the virus "is closing with each and every day that we delay in getting measures in place."

A press conference by top United Nations officials at the UN Foundation in Washington DC today followed the White House media briefing. The World Health Organization (WHO) director, Dr. Margaret Chan, said Ebola is "racing ahead of control efforts", with 3500 confirmed and suspected cases and nearly 2000 deaths. Experts have said the true numbers are likely far higher than those documented figures.

Chan said the three countries feel almost completely isolated, with air and sea arrivals, including UN flights carrying essential medical supplies, prevented from landing in neighboring countries for re-fueling or crew changes. She also said that WHO has many international volunteers ready to go to the region to support "the surge that is very much needed to bring the outbreak under control," but that they cannot get to the affected countries due to international carriers cancelling their services.

"We've talked to individual airlines what can we do," Chan said. "They are not actually afraid of Ebola. They want to be sure that the countries have health care facilities to take care of their crew members if they fall ill with non-Ebola causes. They also want to know that they have access to medical evacuation." Those measures must be provided by international partners.

Dr. David Nabarro, Senior UN System Coordinator for Ebola Disease, singled out Ghana's President John Mahama for having committed in the last few days to provide "an air bridge" to get urgently needed materials and personnel to the region.

Dr Keiji Fukuda, WHO Assistant Director-General for Health Security, said there is a shortage of everything needed to contain the virus – treatment centres, beds, ambulances and personal protective equipment for health care workers – the most vulnerable population. He said an estimated 200-250 workers, from clinicians to people who clean and disinfect facilities, are necessary to care for every 80 Ebola patients.

"One of the most inspiring aspects" of his just-completed visit to the region, said the CDC's Kanyon at the White House briefing, "was the health care workers themselves…who are putting their own wellbeing on the line in caring for others."

He said local workers are the majority of those providing care and services, often without supplies or pay. "I saw a call center in Monrovia (Liberia)," he said, "where dozens of volunteers are manning the phones in eight-hour shifts, entirely voluntary, taking calls from the public. Unfortunately, a lot of those calls are to come pick up dead bodies that were in their home or their neighborhood, but also questions about how Ebola is transmitted."

The call center is operated by the Liberian government and the city of Monrovia.

WHO's Nabarro stressed that it is possible to control Ebola. But he called for a massively accelerated international response. The local people, especially in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, he said, "depend on international solidarity and support."

So far, according to all medical experts, that needed solidarity and support has not come, despite months of the virus spreading and many meetings, committees, fact-finding visits, reports, roadmaps and press conferences.

Yesterday, Dr. Joanne Liu of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), in a special briefing at the United Nations in New York, said she spoke "as president of a medical humanitarian organization on the front lines of this outbreak since it emerged." MSF has doubled its staff, she said, and has taken care of two-thirds of the officially declared infected patients.

"Médecins Sans Frontières has been ringing alarm bells for months," Liu said, "but the response has been too little, too late. The outbreak began six months ago, but was only declared a 'Public Health Emergency of International Concern' (by WHO) on August 8."

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