8 Sep 2014

World slowly waking up to Ebola crisis

If we weren’t living in such dangerous times, West Africa’s Ebola emergency would not have to do battle with the Islamic State and a belligerent Vladimir Putin to grab world attention.

As urgent appeals to the UN Security Council go, last Tuesday’s SOS call from the president of Medicins Sans Frontieres was dramatic. “Six months into the worst Ebola epidemic in history,” said Joanne Liu, the world is losing the battle to contain it…. We are in uncharted waters.”

Ebola doctor

Dr Liu spoke of medical facilities being overwhelmed, health systems crumbling and health workers on the front line either fleeing in fear or becoming infected and “dying in shocking numbers.” She said it was imperative that UN member states capable of deploying “military assets with expertise in bio-hazard containment” did so immediately.

“It is your historic responsibility to act,” she concluded.  But the international response is still, in MSF’s words “lethally inadequate.”


Reports from the epicentre of the epidemic make for distressing reading.  An article published in The New Dawn newspaper in Liberia today describes how three naked Ebola patients had “escaped” from a holding centre in the capital Monrovia over the weekend. They were starving. They begged terrified local people for food and water, before one of them keeled over and died.

The patients in this isolation centre were reported to have been abandoned by the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare. One of the three men, who spoke to a reporter, offered a heart-rending account of what those infected go through. “My people, hunger will kill us before… before the Ebola virus can reach its peak in our bodies. Nobody cares for us,” he said, in tears. It is not the first time this has happened.

Today, the British government announced it was stepping up to the mark, dispatching military engineers and medical staff to set up a 62-bed treatment centre in Sierra Leone, one of the worst-affected countries. The International Development Secretary, Justine Greening, said “Britain is at the forefront of the global effort to tackle this deadly outbreak, having already committed £25-million of support…”

The reality is that this belated British response is hopelessly inadequate, in the face of a disease that has already killed 2,100 people and infected at least 4,000 across five countries.

Spreading fast

“We are pleased the UK government is responding to our appeal and welcome all additional Ebola beds that the military medics can provide,” an MSF spokesperson told Channel 4 News.  “However, we are very worried that the epidemic is spreading much faster than the number of new facilities and that many more Ebola beds still need to be created, and quickly.”

The World Health Organisation says the outbreak in West Africa could be stopped within six-to-nine months – but only if there was a “massive” global response.

Experts say that President Barack Obama’s vague commitment to deploy US military assets to the war against the virus – which came in a TV interview over the weekend  – do not match up to what is required either. His message was confused. He said the US military was going to have to set up isolation units and “provide security for public health workers.”

But public health workers don’t need security from American troops. They need the military’s logistical capability, to establish dedicated air bridges to move personnel and equipment to and within the region. They need to build field hospitals, isolation centres and mobile laboratories across five countries.

Comeback concerns

Among the clinicians and epidemiologists who are sounding the global alarm bells, none other than Dr Peter Piot, who in 1976, discovered the virus. He is quoted today by Associated Press as saying:

“The epidemic is now so vast and so extensive that one should consider that in the three [hardest-hit] countries, everybody is now at risk and it won’t be over until the last case has survived and six weeks have passed.”

One of the biggest concerns with the outbreak is that it is making a comeback in areas where medics had previously given the all-clear. This is because this is the first time the virus has struck urban areas. This means it is not infecting people in what Dr Piot calls “a linear fashion.” It is jumping around between highly mobile populations.

As if to illustrate the extent of this threat,  the US NBC network is reporting that a potential case of Ebola is being treated at a Miami-area hospital, according to officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are no details, yet.

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