The United Nations Security Council last week declared the Ebola outbreak in West Africa “a threat to international peace and security,” the first time the world body has ever recognized a disease as posing such a danger. That momentous step is overdue.
The outbreak has already killed more than 2,900 people and the death count is growing exponentially. This terrifying prospect is the direct result of the failure to muster an ambitious, organized and comprehensive response. There will be many more deaths before the pandemic is contained and defeated.
This outbreak was first detected in March in southeastern Guinea. Apart from those who have already died, the virus has infected more than 5,350 people, mostly in Guinea but also in the neighboring countries of Sierra Leone and Liberia. The virus has also spread to Senegal and Nigeria.
The response since the outbreak was detected has been sporadic and ad hoc. The public health care infrastructure in west African states that have been affected has been overwhelmed. There are few if any facilities for the treatment of deadly diseases such as Ebola and effective containment measures, and protocols are frequently unavailable or not practiced. In many cases, fear prevents medical professionals such as ambulance drivers from doing their jobs to help respond to and contain the disease.
Traditional health and burial practices have facilitated its spread. Ignorance and suspicion have also hindered an effective response. The presence of health care workers is seen as being a cause of death rather than an effect of the disease, and there have been attacks on public health workers as a result.
Governments have resorted to drastic measures. Sierra Leone, for example, ordered a three-day country-wide curfew, requiring all citizens to stay indoors to check the spread of the disease. At the same time, police, soldiers and volunteers have gone door to door to try to educate the public about how to deal with the outbreak. Other governments have cut off large swaths of territory to isolate the disease. Commercial air traffic to some infected areas has also been cut off.
Isolation is no solution, however, unless the world is prepared to let the disease burn itself out and accept the human cost that will result. Experts reckon that each country needs the capacity to treat as many as 10,000 people at any given time, a number currently far beyond many nations’ capacity. In Liberia, for example, its capital Monrovia is said to need 1,210 bed spaces at present, five times the existing number.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has appointed a Special Envoy for Ebola and the head of the U.N. Mission for Ebola Emergency Response to spearhead the international response, which will focus on stopping the spread of the disease, treating the infected, ensuring essential services, preserving stability and preventing the spread to countries currently unaffected. A key to success will be sidestepping the world body’s notorious bureaucracy and moving quickly.
Other governments are pitching in. Noting that the outbreak is “spreading faster and exponentially” and calling it “a potential threat to global security,” U.S. President Barack Obama has said his country plans to deploy 3,000 troops to help contain the outbreak, and build as many as 17 Ebola treatment centers in Liberia, with about 1,700 treatment beds.
Most important, the U.S. will train about 500 health care workers a week.
French President Francois Hollande announced the deployment of a military hospital to supplement the €150 million in aid promised by the European Union.
Britain announced it would provide 700 treatment beds in Sierra Leone,
China will deploy a mobile hospital to treat victims.
Japan donated $1.5 million to Liberia in July to help fight the disease, and has offered another ¥30 million in relief supplies. It has also offered supplies of an experimental drug that can be used to treat the virus. On Thursday, it pledged an additional $40 million.
The steps are welcome, but the delays are crippling the response. The World Heath Organization now estimates it will cost nearly $1 billion to bring the pandemic under control, twice the estimate of a month ago.
Experts applaud the various national contributions, but they are also quick to note that if they had occurred a month ago, the crisis might have been resolved.
Ebola’s lethality and the way the disease spreads means that the Ebola threat is unlikely to spread beyond Africa. There is no need to panic. That does not mean that the disease does not constitute a genuine threat to the peace and stability of Africa. The outbreak is already wreaking havoc on regional economies as an exponential increase in fatalities is possible.
The world has been slow to respond to this threat, and thousands of Africans will pay with their lives as a result. This tragic incident must become a clarion call for an aggressive effort to build a regional health infrastructure that includes early warning and treatment if the next episode — and a next outbreak is certain — is not even worse.
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