The world’s worst Ebola outbreak is threatening the stability of affected and neighbouring countries in West Africa and a “massive” response is needed to bring it under control, the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Tuesday.
Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S. health agency who just returned from West Africa, said he expected the number of Ebola cases to accelerate in the next two weeks and urged governments to act now.
“We’re likely to see significant increases in cases. Already we have widespread transmission Liberia. In Sierra Leone, we’re seeing strong signs that that will happen in the near future,” he said.
Dr. Frieden said the outbreak was the first epidemic of Ebola the world has ever known, meaning it is spreading widely in society and is “threatening the stability” of affected and neighbouring countries.
“The challenge isn’t knowing what to do. The challenge is doing it now,” Dr. Frieden said on a conference call with reporters.
A similarly urgent tone came from the president of the medical charity Médecins sans frontières (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders. Joanne Liu said in a speech to United Nations members in New York that the outbreak was now an issue of international security and needed specialized biological disaster response teams to contain it, both civilian and military.
“Six months into the worst Ebola epidemic in history, the world is losing the battle to contain it,” Dr. Liu said, slamming what she called “a global coalition of inaction.”
Meanwhile, a U.S. government agency said on Tuesday that it would accelerate the development of an Ebola treatment from Mapp Biopharmaceutical that is based in part on Canadian research.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said that work on the Ebola drug would be funded by a contract worth up to $42.3-million (U.S.). It said that Mapp would manufacture a small amount of the drug for early-stage safety studies.
Since it was detected in the remote jungles of southeastern Guinea early this year, the Ebola outbreak has killed about 1,550 people, according to the World Health Organization.
Despite international efforts to contain the deadly disease, the number of cases “is now increasing rapidly,” Dr. Frieden told the briefing. “I’m afraid that over the next two weeks, those numbers are likely to increase further.”
Dr. Frieden said there is still a window of opportunity to tamp down the outbreak, but said “that window is closing.”
“We need action now to scale up the response. We know how to stop Ebola. The challenge is to scale it up to the massive levels needed to stop this outbreak,” he said.
Swift response helped tire manufacturer Firestone contain Ebola when an employee at its plant in Liberia became infected.
Dr. Frieden said the company built isolation rooms and identified 73 contacts of the infected individual, then placed them in isolation rooms for 21 days. Eleven of those employees became ill, and they were treated in an isolated treatment ward the company built. The effort completely contained the outbreak, Dr. Frieden said, adding that type of response was widely needed.
Dr. Frieden said the virus has not mutated in a way that makes it more transmittable, but the risk of such a mutation increases each day the virus circulates within human populations.
During his tour of clinics, Dr. Frieden donned the same gear that local Ebola health-care workers are wearing to protect themselves from the disease.
“It’s roasting hot. It’s very difficult to move. It’s a very distressing environment. Sweat pours down into your goggles and into your eyes,” he said.
Dr. Frieden appealed for health-care workers and hospital administrators experienced in this type of work in low-resource countries to volunteer their services through organizations such as the CDC Foundation and MSF.
“The virus is moving faster than anyone anticipated. We need to move fast,” he said.
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