Via The Washington Post, an opinion piece by Michael T. Osterholm, director of CIDRAP: What we need to fight Ebola
The front-line providers of medical care for this outbreak have been dedicated and heroic, but there just aren’t enough of them. Doctors Without Borders is the primary treatment and community-intervention organization in the three affected countries, in addition to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, public health agencies organized under the World Health Organization (WHO), and in-country health-care providers and community educators.
These groups know how to fight this disease — they helped develop the interventions that stopped Ebola outbreaks in the past — but the nongovernmental organizations are “dangerously close to being completely tapped out,” a Doctors Without Borders spokesman told me this past week. “It will be impossible to implement an effective control strategy for this outbreak due to a severe shortage of medical professionals on the ground and the geographic spread of the disease.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Thursday that it will send 50 additional specialists to West Africa to help combat the outbreak, supplementing the 12 CDC professionals already there.
For an outbreak involving three countries with about 22 million people and 165,000 square miles, that’s hardly enough boots on the ground. But the CDC is just one piece of the international response; the WHO and other G-7 nations need to act, too.
The WHO does not have the resources to stop this outbreak alone. With a deep respect for the sovereignty of the affected countries, the G-7 nations — the United States, Canada, Germany, Britain, France, Italy and Japan — must immediately mobilize and deploy hundreds of infectious-disease experts, along with medical and technical assets to map the epidemic. Hundreds more personnel will be needed to establish treatment centers and to work with local leaders and educators to help people learn how to stop virus transmission.
In addition to these outside resources, the affected countries must step up their commitment to stopping the outbreak. This past week, Ernest Bai Koroma, president of Sierra Leone, declared an Ebola-related public emergency. He called on the army to quarantine Ebola-stricken neighborhoods and to help conduct house-to-house searches for people who may have been exposed to the virus. Such moves acknowledge that this outbreak will not be stopped using the approaches that have worked before. But it is unclear how these efforts are being coordinated with the WHO and NGOs in Sierra Leone. And since this is a regional problem that requires every involved country to halt virus transmission, regional governmental coordination is crucial.
What happens if the response to and management of this outbreak don’t shift? The fear and panic are growing each day, with new areas reporting cases and more health-care workers dying. If it continues, West Africa could become politically and economically destabilized.
Already, crops are not being harvested because of unrest surrounding the outbreak. Schools in Liberia have closed, and the Peace Corps has removed 340 volunteers from the affected countries. Borders are being closed, too, which can have political and economic impacts.
This coming week’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington must put the Ebola crisis front and center. If the presidents of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone decide to stay home, it will be virtually impossible to do so. Other African countries must also pledge quick and effective responses if cases occur within their borders.
We are at a critical point, and the response by the international community and the affected countries will determine if this outbreak is just a chapter in the region’s story — or a dramatic and dangerous shift in West Africa’s future.