Stephen Cornish is MSF Canada Executive Director.
The Ebola epidemic that has been sweeping through West Africa since last January has proven to be the most devastating single outbreak of the disease in history. According to the World Health Organization, more than 1,700 people have fallen sick, mostly in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and more than 900 of those people have died. There is so far no sign of the epidemic slowing down: Just last week, a man who flew to Nigeria was the first case to be reported in that country and died after contracting the virus – nine more suspected cases have since been identified.
Ebola not only kills most of its victims but causes great suffering as well. Our organization, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), has treated hundreds of those affected since the outbreak first started and while our staff has had success in bringing people back to health, the disease has taken its toll. Many patients continue to spend their final moments in isolation wards, cut off from family, friends and even medical staff, who remain hidden behind protective suits, cut off from the people they treat by necessary yet forbidding safety protocols.
Up until now, MSF has been among just a handful of organizations responding to the Ebola crisis on the ground. But our efforts are reaching a tipping point: We and our partners will soon be too overwhelmed to do any more, and we will no longer be able to respond to new cases. There have been some welcome signs that others have at last recognized the severity of the emergency, and are ready to take action. The World Health Organization (WHO), for example, announced last week the release of additional funds to fight the outbreak. This is an excellent first step, but funding must translate into immediate, effective action, such as adding hundreds more of qualified personnel on the ground. A job on this scale requires a co-ordinated global response: It is the responsibility of the WHO to mobilize the necessary resources and to guarantee immediate impact on the ground.
As for Canada, we’ve been encouraged by this country’s response to date, and by the fact that the government is looking into ways of scaling up its response. Canada and other governments need to act quickly, and should send to the region their infectious disease experts in epidemiological surveillance and others who can help build the medical and logistical capacity to treat patients. A massive deployment by all actors must happen immediately to help contain this epidemic.
Some of the unique needs of this crisis, however, go beyond medical capacity: One of the biggest challenges facing our teams on the ground has been the hostility they have met from people who associate our efforts to treat patients with the arrival of the disease in their midst. A lack of information about Ebola contributes to panic, and drives many infected people away from the treatment they urgently require. This, in turn, sends the outbreak to new and unknown places, and makes the challenge of containing it that much more difficult. Organizations with capacity for grassroots community education are therefore needed on the ground, and should be called upon to step up to this immediate challenge.
MSF remains committed to treating as many patients as we can, and we continue to send medical team members from around the world to West Africa to help those affected by this crisis. We do so with a deep understanding of the concerns involved, and take every precaution available to prevent the spread of infection to our staff and beyond.
Ebola is a devastating illness. It is only by working together that we will be able to prevent this epidemic from spreading. In order to reduce the potential for even more victims in West Africa and elsewhere, we urgently call on our fellow international actors to help stop Ebola in its deadly tracks.