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Ebola virus virion (Photo: CDC/Cynthia Goldsmith)

WHO Declares Ebola Outbreak a 'Public Health Emergency'

Humanitarian organizations and doctors urge aggressive action to help all who are threatened by the disease

Sarah Lazare

As the World Health Organization declares the Ebola outbreak in areas of West Africa a "Public Health Emergency of International Concern," humanitarian organizations and medical doctors are urging aggressive action, 'not just words,' to help all people threatened by the disease.

The W.H.O. announced Friday that its Emergency Committee came to a unanimous decision to label to label the outbreak an "extraordinary event" that requires a "coordinated international response." While the organization explicitly stated, "There should be no general ban on international travel or trade," it urged heads of state in affected countries to declare "national emergencies," screen people crossing borders by land, air, or sea, and prevent people suspected of infection from traveling.

Dr. Bart Janssens, director of operations for humanitarian aid organization Doctors Without Borders, said in a press statement released Friday, “Declaring Ebola an international public health emergency shows how seriously the World Health Organization (WHO) is taking the current outbreak; but statements won’t save lives. Now we need this statement to translate into immediate action on the ground."

"The Ebola virus is a very virulent and deadly disease and spreads very quickly," Dr. Dougbeh Chris Nyan, medical doctor and biomedical researcher for the Food and Drug Administration, told Common Dreams. "Necessary health care measures have to be put in place to contain it."

The W.H.O. reports that, since this latest outbreak began in March, Ebola has killed at least 932 people, making it the worst outbreak ever recorded. Meanwhile, the total number of suspected and confirmed cases has reached 1,779, with infections and deaths reported in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and Nigeria. Doctors Without Borders reports that teams on the ground have seen a "worrying surge" in the disease in recent weeks, with drastic increases of infections in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Meanwhile, scientists warn that global climate change may have played a role in fueling this latest outbreak.

The disease, which is transmitted through contact with organs and bodily fluids, has a fatality rate of 50 to 90 percent with no known cure.

Two U.S. aid workers who contracted the disease in Libya were recently evacuated to the United States and administered an experimental vaccine produced by pharmaceutical company Mapp Biopharmaceutical. 

The failure to treat West African residents who contracted the disease with equally aggressive measures touched off considerable controversy, including criticism from three of the world's top Ebola specialists, who say people in the affected areas should have access to the vaccines. Liberia's assistant health minister, Tolbert Nyenswah, told the Wall Street Journal that officials are facing pleas from dying Liberians and their families for the same access to the medicine.

Meanwhile, as Leslie Savan points out in the Nation, media sensationalism over the disease has stoked racist and xenophobic sentiments on the U.S. right-wing.

Humanitarian workers say that aggressive action—not fear—is needed to quell the disease. “In concrete terms, all of the following need to be radically scaled up: medical care, training of health staff, infection control, contact tracing, epidemiological surveillance, alert and referral systems, community mobilization, and education," stated Janssens.

"Lives are being lost because the response is too slow.”

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