AT THE opening late last month of a high-level meeting on the global response to the Ebola outbreak, Dr. Margaret Chan, the director general of the World Health Organization, put into sharp focus the awesome task that lies ahead in fighting the spread of the deadly virus.
Dr. Chan described Ebola as “a fast-moving epidemic that got ahead of everyone at the start and is still running ahead, jumping over everything we put in place to try to slow it down.”
“We should expect things to get worse before getting better,” Dr. Chan said. “People will continue to struggle to survive and, unfortunately, some will die.”
That is not by any measure an encouraging assessment. But The WHO chief is not alone in presenting this bleak outlook. Dr. Joanne Liu, the president of Doctors Without Borders, reports that the situation in Western Africa, where the outbreak began and where it is practically raging out of control, “is moving faster and deteriorating faster than we can respond.”
The statistics are frightening. As of last September, Ebola has infected 5,347 people, killing half of them. Dr. Liu believes the number of deaths is “likely the tip of iceberg” because the toll covers only the patients who died at health centers. Many more deaths occurring within local communities could have gone unreported.
A charity, Save the Children, estimates that five people are being infected with Ebola every hour in Sierra Leone, which, together with Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Senegal is Ground Zero for the disease. There are, however, concerns that Ebola could gain a firm foothold in other continents, transported by air travellers from West Africa.
In the United States, the federal government is trying to prevent an Ebola panic after an American returning from West Africa tested positive for the disease and was placed in isolation at a hospital in Texas.
US health officials were monitoring 100 people who had contact with the man and ordered four of his close family members to stay at home.
Dr. Chan noted that the epidemic blindsided everyone, and that the world had responded belatedly to what many thought was an outbreak that was confined to a few remote villages in Sierra Leone and Liberia. And that makes the task of fighting it even harder.
Today the United Nations considers Ebola as the “world’s highest priority,” more critical than the conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East, and has rallied world leaders to help it battle the disease.
To underscore the severity of the problem, the agency has created the UN Mission on Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER) to spearhead the offensive.
Among the first to respond to the UN’s call to arms was US President Barack Obama, who is treating the campaign against Ebola as nothing short of a war. Mr. Obama has committed to deploy as many as 4,000 US soldiers to Liberia, the frontline of the war against the disease. The troops will train health care workers and set up field hospitals and laboratories for international aid teams.
Britain was also quick to respond, pledging the equivalent of $190 million to help build 700 treatment beds and fund new community treatment centers in Sierra Leone.
Other countries are expected to join the anti-Ebola coalition in what Dr. Chan hopes is the first promise that “transformational change will happen.”
Her urgent message to the world: “Every day, every minute, counts.”
It is a message that we must not ignore. The world must act now, before it is too late.