President Barack Obama announced today that he will send up to 3,000 health workers and military personnel to Liberia to help stem the outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in West Africa that has paralyzed the health system there and threatened the lives of millions of people in the region. It's about time. The epidemic represents a crisis of global dimensions, and the fight against it requires the U.S. to take a leadership role if the effort is to succeed. We can only wonder how many lives could have been saved if the Obama administration had taken these steps — and more — weeks ago.
The World Health Organization estimates that as many as 20,000 people could be infected by the Ebola virus in the coming months, which would make it the largest outbreak in history. Since the virus reappeared in West Africa six months ago, some 4,269 people have been infected by Ebola in the four countries at the center of the outbreak — Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria — and 2,300 of them have died. Health officials warn that the region could see thousands of new cases a week by early October if more isn't done immediately to contain the outbreak.
Yet until now the international community has been slow to respond to the threat. Over the last 40 years, there have been 19 previous outbreaks of the disease, but they all occurred in remote villages of East Africa isolated from major population centers. But that has changed with the most recent outbreak, which is occurring in areas from which it could easily spread to other large cities in Africa and to other regions of the developing world. If that were to happen, the fragile health care systems in all those countries could easily be overwhelmed.
Health officials are particularly concerned that Ebola, which so far has been transmitted only through direct contact with the bodily fluids of infected people, could eventually mutate into a form transmissible through the air, like the flu. In that case, infections could quickly spread to virtually every part of the globe, as did the H1N1 flu virus in 2009. The result would be a world-wide pandemic with the potential to kill millions of people before it was brought under control.
Though the risk of the disease spreading to the U.S. appears relatively small at the moment, it could increase exponentially in the next few months unless the administration marshals the resources to contain the outbreak within the countries where it now exists. The Defense Department and the Agency for International Development have been ordered to send medical equipment and personnel to the affected areas in Africa, but it will still take weeks for the operation to scale up to its full capacity, and even then it may not be large enough to handle the thousands of new cases expected over the next few months.
It's important for Americans to understand that this is a humanitarian effort, and we have a direct stake in its success. In an increasingly interconnected world, no country is immune to the threat of Ebola, especially if it eventually mutates into an even more dangerous airborne pathogen. The steps President Obama pledged todayare a good start, but containing the outbreak and bringing the epidemic under control while it is still possible will require an even broader international effort, likely through the United Nations.
The elements of such a program should include military aircraft and vehicles to deliver medical supplies and health workers where they are needed most along with the equipment required to sustain operations for as long as necessary. The epidemic has overwhelmed the fragile health care systems in the countries where it is now raging, and there is an urgent need for hospital beds, disinfectants, pharmaceuticals and protective clothing for doctors and nurses and as well as food and water for the inhabitants of areas that have been quarantined.
The need for trained health care workers is especially acute. Several hundred doctors, nurses and other hospital staff employees have died after contracting Ebola from patients, and hundreds more simply abandoned their posts for fear of falling victim to a similar fate. As a result, many hospitals have been shuttered just when they are most needed, and foreign aid workers are fleeing the region. The epidemic has left Liberia, for example, with only 250 doctors for a population of some 4 million.
The U.N. needs to come up with a plan to re-staff those facilities so that they can be used to treat Ebola patients as well as victims of other illnesses endemic to the region, such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV. Stopping the Ebola virus in its tracks is an enormous undertaking that will tax the resources of even developed nations like the U.S. and those of the European Union. But it's also clearly in their interest to do so. The cost to themselves will still be insignificant compared to the price they would pay for allowing Ebola to spread.
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