The world seems to be losing the battle against Ebola. Who is to blame? Critics say the international community is not doing enough to curb the disease.
When doctor Werner Strahl talks about the fight against Ebola in Sierra Leone, the physician tells a tale of deficiencies and shortages. Strahl, a pediatrician and president of the humanitarian organization Cap Anamur, has just returned to Germany from Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital. There, he helped out at a clinic for two weeks.
"It is the only children's hospital in the whole country," Strahl says. And it is one that is not fit at all to deal with patients coming in with a fever, one of the symptoms of the deadly disease. "The laboratories are four to six hours away by car. We needed to get the blood there and then we needed to get the information back. It took up to three days for us to get results of Ebola tests."
Too long. By the time tests confirmed that one little girl had contracted the disease, nurses and doctors had already been in close contact with the child, Strahl tells DW. Medical staff stayed home as a result, only two doctors continued to treat patients. Protective suits and gloves were in short supply. These deficits on the ground, Strahl says, are the sort of mistakes that have characterized the international response since the outbreak was detected in March.
"So many opportunities were missed," Strahl tells DW. "It's not just us at Cap Anamur, but many other organizations such as Doctors Without Borders have been warning since April that a lot more has to be done. We asked for more protective gear and for widespread awareness campaigns."
Strahl suspects that governments were too afraid of panic breaking out and thus delayed media campaigns informing the public about Ebola. And protective suits? In many areas hit by the virus, they are still scarce. "The international community just did not have enough personal protective equipment in stock," Strahl says. "Only now, production has been fired up."
The World Health Organization (WHO) is in charge of coordinating international efforts to contain the disease. WHO Director-General Margaret Chan says that everyone involved initially underestimated the outbreak. More than 1,500 people have died from Ebola since March, most of them in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. At current infection rates, more than 20,000 new cases could occur over the next six months.
Yet Chan is still optimistic, "because we believe the outbreak can and will be controlled. We know what is needed and we know how to do it." Last week, the WHO unveiled a $490-million (372-million-euro) road map aiming to bring the outbreak under control. It emphasizes grassroots actions against the disease and stipulates the need for caution at funerals. WHO chief Chan thanked those countries that have already pledged to contribute funds to the plan. She asked for more countries to join the fight against Ebola.
House on fire
But even that will not be enough, says Joanne Liu, president of Doctors Without Borders. "While funding announcements, roadmaps and finding vaccines and treatments are welcome, they will not stop the epidemic." Her organization has treated the majority of Ebola patients in West Africa so far: "To curb this epidemic, it is imperative that states immediately deploy civilian and military assets with expertise in biohazard containment. To put out this fire, we need to run into the burning house."
Medical doctor Werner Strahl agrees: "The WHO can only succeed if enough staff are on the ground. And we see that it is not easy to find people." Lambasting the international community for not doing enough will not change the situation, he says. Instead governments should provide enough money and staff for the WHO to do its work effectively. "I don't want to decry them", Strahl says. "We absolutely need them."