The Ebola outbreak currently plaguing several Western African nations constitutes an “international health emergency” and requires a “coordinated international response,” according to officials from the World Health Organization (WHO). The global health experts’ announcement on Friday came after a two-day meeting of WHO’s emergency committee on Ebola.
“The outbreak is moving faster than we can control it,” WHO’s director-general Margaret Chan told reporters. “The declaration… will galvanize the attention of leaders of all countries at the top level. It cannot be done by the ministries of health alone.”
As Ebola has continued to ravage impoverished countries that lack adequate health care infrastructures — and the death toll from the deadly virus topped 900 this week — the international community has been trying to figure out how to respond. Earlier this week, international development banks committed $260 million in emergency loans to Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea to help them battle the epidemic. Health experts from the United States have also been working on the ground in those Western African countries to try to track the spread of the virus, which has killed about 60 percent of the people it’s infected.
By declaring the outbreak an international issue, WHO officials are intending to make “a clear call for international solidarity” to assist the nations struggling to stem the epidemic. They’re not trying to incite panic or suggest that Ebola will overtake most countries. In fact, large outbreaks in other parts of the world are relatively unlikely. Ebola, which is transmitted through direct contact with bodily fluids rather than through the air, can effectively be contained with proper screening and quarantine measures. The reason it’s spreading so quickly throughout Western Africa is because those countries lack the resources to implement those procedures.
“The three countries that are most affected by Ebola disease are countries that have very weak health system capacity,” Chen explained. “They don’t have enough doctors, nurses or even basic equipment, such as gloves and protective suits.”
Now, the United States plans to send additional health experts to the region, including a dozen specialists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and a “disaster assistance response team” from the U.S. Agency for International Development. WHO is also calling for a “strong supply pipeline” to be established so that the affected areas receive adequate protective gear for health workers.
There are no approved vaccines or cures for the deadly Ebola virus, but there are some experimental treatments that have shown promise in animals. The two American citizens who contracted Ebola while living abroad are being treated with one of those untested drugs, sparking criticism that it’s unfair the hundreds of West Africans infected with the virus don’t have the same access to potential treatments. Next week, WHO will meet again to discuss the possibility of using those drugs more broadly to try to contain the outbreak.