Officials Warn Ebola Crisis 'Unprecedented in Modern Times'

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Officials Warn Ebola Crisis 'Unprecedented in Modern Times'

Obama to detail U.S. response on Tuesday as health officials blame 'lethally inadequate' international response for spiraling epidemic

Medical workers carry a weak patient to an Ebola treatment center in Kailahun, Sierra Leone. (Photo: Sylvain Cherkaoui/Cosmos via MSF)

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama is expected to announce that he will be sending 3,000 U.S. military personnel to Liberia in an attempt to help stem the growing Ebola crisis that has already claimed thousands of lives and decimated entire communities in west Africa.

However, public health officials say that the response may amount to 'too little, too late' as new estimates reveal potentially hundreds of thousands may be infected by the end of the year. As the delay in action by the international community has caused the virus to completely overtake the capacity of the public health systems in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, officials warn that the crisis has grown to a level "unparalleled in modern times."

"The nature of response is so far behind the virus, so far behind the scale of need, that it's almost impossible to quantify how we really do need to respond," Laurie Garrett, senior fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Democracy Now! on Monday. As Garrett explains, local hospitals are so completely overfull that "people are literally dying on the sidewalks and in the dirt roads outside the hospitals."

Because of this, she says, most of the people who contract the disease are being treated at home, causing the disease to spread exponentially. She estimates that total number of those infected may be threefold official estimates, and are likely "in the neighborhood of 12,000 to 15,000 cumulative cases."

According to the World Health Organization's latest figures, 2,461 have been killed and 4,985 diagnosed with the deadly virus.

"We either find a way to mobilize on a scale unprecedented in modern time for epidemic response," Garrett continued, "or we will be looking at something like a quarter-million cases by Christmas."

The announcement, which Obama will make during a visit to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, comes less than a week after Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf sent a letter to the U.S. leader calling for "more direct help" from wealthy nations.

The U.S. response will take roughly two weeks to deploy. Citing administration officials, the Associated Press reports:

[T]he new initiatives aimed to train as many as 500 healthcare workers a week; erect 17 healthcare facilities in the region of 100 beds each; set up a joint command headquartered in Monrovia, Liberia, to co-ordinate between US and international relief efforts; provide home healthcare kits to hundreds of thousands of households, including 50,000 that the US Agency for International Development will deliver to Liberia this week; and carry out a home and community-based campaign to train local populations on how to handle exposed patients.

In comments made to the UN on Tuesday ahead of Obama's official announcement, Dr. Joanne Liu, international president of Médecins Sans Frontières/ Doctors Without Borders, acknowledged the promised deployment made by the U.S. along with Cuba, China, France, the United Kingdom, and the European Union, but added that "we need greater deployment and we need it NOW."

During the speech, Liu echoed the scenes described by Gannett, explaining how overwhelmed MSF medical teams have had to turn away highly infectious people causing the deadly virus to spread. "All for a lack of international response," she charged.

Liu continues:

As of today, MSF has sent more than 420 tonnes of supplies to the affected countries. We have 2,000 staff on the ground. We manage more than 530 beds in five different Ebola care centres. Yet we are overwhelmed.  We are honestly at a loss as to how a single, private NGO is providing the bulk of isolation units and beds. 

We are unable to predict how the epidemic will spread. We are dealing largely with the unknown. But we do know that the number of recorded Ebola cases represents only a fraction of the real number of people infected.  We do know that transmission rates are at unprecedented levels. We do know that communities are being decimated. And, with certainty, we know that the ground response remains totally, and lethally, inadequate.

With every passing week, the epidemic grows exponentially. With every passing week, the response becomes all the more complicated.

Calling for an urgent and international deployment of trained medical personnel, civil defense and military assets, Liu warns: "How the world deals with this unprecedented epidemic will be recorded in history books.  This is a regional crisis with economic, social and security implications that reach far beyond the borders of the affected countries."

The United Nations estimates that their response plan to the unfolding crisis will cost roughly $1 billion. Presenting the updated figures in a joint news statement on Tuesday, the World Health Organization's emergency chief Bruce Aylward said he believed the total number of people infected "can be kept in the tens of thousands, but that is going to require a much faster escalation of the response if we're to beat the escalation of the virus."

"This health crisis we face is unparallelled in modern times," Aylward warned.

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