Ebola Outbreak 'Vastly Underestimated': Health Experts

"Sierra Leone: into the Ebola epicentre" (Photo: (c)EC/ECHO/Cyprien Fabre)

Ebola Outbreak 'Vastly Underestimated': Health Experts

"The scale of what we need to be doing versus what we are doing is...log-scale differential"

The Ebola outbreak has been "vastly underestimated" and requires containment efforts far greater than those currently being taken, health experts warn.

The outbreak of the virus in West Africa--described as the worst ever--has already killed over 1,000 people in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone and has infected nearly 2,000.

In a statement issued Thursday, the World Health Organization (WHO) said, "Staff at the outbreak sites see evidence that the numbers of reported cases and deaths vastly underestimate the magnitude of the outbreak."

The United Nations agency added that it "is coordinating a massive scaling up of the international response, marshalling support from individual countries, disease control agencies, agencies within the United Nations system, and others."

The WHO declared the Ebola outbreak a public health emergency on Aug. 8, a declaration which came too late, according to humanitarian medical aid organization Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres).

Speaking to reporters in Geneva on Friday Joanne Liu, international president of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said, "I think the wake-up call was too late in calling it a public health emergency of international concern."

Liu, just back from a 10-day trip to the Ebola-affected countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, said that the epidemic "is deteriorating faster, and moving faster, than we can respond to," adding, "I really had the feeling that it is a wartime, in terms of fear."

She expects it to take six months to "get the upper hand on the epidemic," and said in some areas lack of access to basic healthcare created "an emergency within an emergency."

Liu said that Liberia was a key area in the fight, saying, "If we don't stabilize Liberia, we'll never stabilize the region." Cases appearing in the Nigerian city of Lagos were a concern as well, she said, because "we have no past experience of Ebola within an urban setting."

The scale of the crisis is not widely understood, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Laurie Garrett, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, stresed to Democracy Now! on Friday. "The scale of what we need to be doing versus what we are doing is, you know, log-scale differential," she said.

"What we need is hundreds of healthcare workers in these countries immediately--hundreds. And we're getting dribs and drabs," she said. "We need people who have history of working under great trauma, who know how to work in the tropical heat, who know how to maintain personal infection control, and are prepared to deal with some psychologically devastating things."

In addition to lack of healthcare resources in some areas, including few doctors to treat many patients and internal conflicts, fear and mistrust of hospitals--based on historical facts--may keep some people from seeking care, thereby contributing to the epidemic's spread.

Garrett noted that "when you hear that people say, 'You can't go to the hospital because they cut off legs there,' or, 'Don't go to the hospital because the white people are cannibals,' or, 'Don't go to the hospital because they will inject you with something that will kill you,' these are valid rumors to people. They believe it because they've had a history where all those things actually happened."

"The history of medical experimentation by the West in Africa is a deeply troubled one," medical ethicist Harriet A. Washington told the Real News. "There are many, many incidents that would give rise to a logical fear of the healthcare system." She cited examples of secret sterilization carried out by a doctor during the Apartheid era, a doctor in Zimbabwe giving overdoses of anesthetics under the guise of testing them, and another doctor at a university in South Africa that did medical experimentations on breast cancer patients.

The WHO describes Ebola as "one of the world's most virulent diseases," with a fatality rate of up to 90%.

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To hear more about the current Ebola situation, watch the full segment from Democracy Now!:

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