As Ebola Outbreak Surges, Health Officials Slam International 'Coalition of Inaction'
"We cannot cut off the affected countries and hope this epidemic will simply burn out. To put out this fire, we must run into the burning building."
As the Ebola outbreak surges to record levels, the international response has been "lethally inadequate" and has only worsened the epidemic by "marginalizing" the population affected, a chorus of top international medical officials said during a high-level United Nations briefing in New York on Tuesday.
Slamming the lack of response by UN Member States, Dr. Joanne Liu, international president of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said that despite the World Health Organization's (WHO) announcement that the epidemic constituted a "public health emergency of international concern," outside countries "have essentially joined a global coalition of inaction."
"Six months into the worst Ebola epidemic in history, the world is losing the battle to contain it," Liu declared. Painting a bleak picture of the situation on the ground in the most affected countries, she continued:
In West Africa, cases and deaths continue to surge. Riots are breaking out. Isolation centers are overwhelmed. Health workers on the front lines are becoming infected and are dying in shocking numbers. Others have fled in fear, leaving people without care for even the most common illnesses. Entire health systems have crumbled.
Ebola treatment centers are reduced to places where people go to die alone, where little more than palliative care is offered. It is impossible to keep up with the sheer number of infected people pouring into facilities. In Sierra Leone, infectious bodies are rotting in the streets.
Rather than building new Ebola care centers in Liberia, we are forced to build crematoria.
Accusing UN Member States of focusing "solely on measures to protect their own borders," Liu added: "We cannot cut off the affected countries and hope this epidemic will simply burn out. To put out this fire, we must run into the burning building."
According to WHO's latest statistics, the number of detected Ebola cases in affected countries Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, stands at 3,069 with over 1,552 deaths, making this the largest Ebola outbreak ever recorded. Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General, said this was the largest, most severe and complex Ebola outbreak ever seen in the nearly 40-year history of this disease.
Echoing Liu's concern that the international community is marginalizing the affected population and potentially worsening the outbreak, Chan told the assembled group: “Ebola is now being labeled as an African disease, this is not justified, this is unfair and uncalled for. The level of anxiety and fear is high worldwide because of the severity of the disease and there is a lot of misunderstanding."
Chan added that the three hardest hit countries—Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone—are “isolated” and “marginalized,” hampering efforts because WHO cannot fly in experts to help.
On Tuesday, UN officials working on the ground in West Africa issued a separate statement saying that they "deplor[e] the ongoing socio-economic consequences of the spread of the virus, including in particular the isolation of the affected countries with the risk of stigmatizing the populations." They added that the solution is "not in travel restrictions but in ensuring that effective preventive and curative health measures are put in place."
MSF is calling for UN member states to deploy their federal biological threat and disaster response teams to the affected nations, "backed by the full weight of your logistical capabilities." They noted that international response must be done in "close collaboration" with the affected countries.
The officials emphasized that the medical infrastructure in those places are now stretched beyond their limits and that workers have been dangerously exposed as a result. Since March, nearly a tenth of all Ebola deaths have been health workers, according to the latest statistics.
Medical staff at Liberia's largest hospital, the John F. Kennedy Medical Center in Monrovia, went on strike on Monday, saying they have been risking their lives without being provided with proper protection or equipment. “From the beginning of the Ebola outbreak we have not had any protective equipment to work with. As result, so many doctors got infected by the virus," a spokesman for the strikers told AFP.
Further, according to George Williams, secretary general of the Health Workers Association of Liberia, the medical staff at the JFK hospital had gone unpaid for two months. The strike follows a one-day protest at a hospital in Sierra Leone's capital Freetown on Monday and a similar action at an Ebola clinic in eastern Sierra Leone last week, Reuters reports.