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World WHO fights ‘fear factor’ as Ebola death toll continues to rise

Residents cover their noses from the smell as a burial team places the body of a suspected Ebola victim in a truck, in the West Point neighborhood of Monrovia, Liberia, Aug. 28, 2014. The epidemic has exposed gaping holes in the ability of health agencies, like the World Health Organization, to tackle outbreaks in an increasingly interconnected world, where diseases can quickly spread from remote villages to cities housing millions of people.

Daniel Berehulak/The New York Times

With the Ebola death toll taking its biggest leap yet, the World Health Organization is wrestling with a critical dilemma: how to boost the global sense of urgency over the crisis while also restraining the irrational "fear factor" that has severely damaged the relief effort.

The number of Ebola deaths in West Africa climbed to more than 1,900 this week, a worrisome jump of more than 350 over last week's total, WHO director-general Margaret Chan revealed at a briefing on Wednesday. This surpasses, for the first time, the cumulative total of deaths in all previous Ebola outbreaks in history.

Health experts are increasingly frustrated by the world's slow response to the crisis. African countries afflicted by the deadly disease are desperately in need of everything: doctors, nurses, basic equipment, transport, cash for salaries – even truck drivers and burial workers. "The outbreak is racing ahead of the control efforts," Dr. Chan said.

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The actual death toll is probably much higher than the official count. In Liberia, for example, a new government report found more than 1,000 confirmed or suspected Ebola deaths – far more than the WHO figure of fewer than 700 in its last detailed breakdown.

But as fears escalate, the WHO has begun an intense lobbying effort to persuade jittery airlines and governments to reverse their decisions to shut down the air routes and airports that are crucial for bringing health workers into the Ebola zones. Seaports, too, are shutting their quays, worsening the shortages of food and fuel.

More than 1,000 people have died so far from this year's Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Here, we map out all deaths up to and including Aug. 11.

The "fear factor" has grown "way out of proportion," Dr. Chan told the briefing. Health experts who have volunteered to work free have been prevented from flying into the Ebola region because of airline cancellations. "We're not able to deploy them because there are no airlines going in," she said. "This is really a big problem."

Even the private airplanes of the United Nations and Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) have been forced to sit idle because some African governments have barred the use of their airports, she said, and these excessive fears are making it increasingly difficult to recruit the health workers who are urgently needed.

"We should not stigmatize Africans and the continent and call this an African disease," Dr. Chan said. "This stigmatization is already playing out in a big way … making the global response much more difficult."

The three countries that have suffered the greatest number of Ebola deaths – Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea – are feeling "totally isolated" because of the shutdowns and suspensions, she said.

To help overcome the airline suspensions and closed airports, the WHO has reached an agreement with Ghana to use its capital, Accra, as part of an "air bridge" to send personnel and goods to the Ebola-afflicted countries.

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David Nabarro, the UN's senior co-ordinator for Ebola, who has just completed a tour of the stricken regions, said the cost of responding to the crisis will be at least $600-million (U.S.) and "maybe a lot more."

Meanwhile, a third American has tested positive for Ebola. The doctor, Rick Sacra, worked for a U.S. missionary group in Liberia. He returned to Liberia after two other Americans fell ill with the disease and were flown to Atlanta for medical treatment. Dr. Sacra was not caring directly for Ebola patients but was delivering babies in a hospital obstetrics unit, the group said.

In another development, British nurse William Pooley, who was infected with Ebola in Sierra Leone, was discharged from a London hospital on Wednesday after recovering from the disease. He was treated with the experimental drug ZMapp, although it's unclear if this made a difference in his recovery.

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