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Opinion Canada should be a leader in the fight against Ebola

James Orbinski MD is Research Chair and Professor in Global Health at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, in Waterloo, Canada;

Roméo Dallaire is the founder of the Romeo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative, a retired lieutenant-general and former Liberal Senator and Force Commander of the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda;

Frank Chalk is the director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University.

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The Ebola epidemic now sweeping through West Africa is the most devastating single outbreak of the disease in history. The United Nations Security Council took the remarkable step last Thursday of declaring the current Ebola epidemic in West Africa a 'threat to international peace and security.' Such determinations are taken extremely seriously, highlighting the profound danger Ebola presents not only to West Africans but also to the entire world, which will feel the ripple effects of this crisis unless urgent action is taken.

That danger is all the more acute given the recent history of brutal civil war in that region which killed more than 250,000 people, destroyed the innocence of thousands of children who were enlisted as child soldiers and laid entire national infrastructures to waste. These nations have been clawing their way back toward peace and prosperity for over a decade. But dead bodies once again litter the streets of Liberia and Sierra Leone as Ebola wreaks its havoc, wiping away years of hard-earned progress.

As well as the accelerating Ebola death toll, entire health systems are collapsing causing women, men and children to die of treatable diseases like malaria because they can't access care. The World Bank warns, unless urgent action is taken, the economic impact of this epidemic will be 'catastrophic,' erasing up to $800-million of productivity in a region where most people subsist on less than $2 a day. The impact of such devastation will not be limited to West Africa and will be felt by the global community as a whole.

Yet, instead of rushing forward and responding to this unprecedented humanitarian calamity, the world has effectively cordoned off West Africa and fallen back to defend its own borders. Flights to the region are grounded, industry and aid workers have left and strained governments are abandoned to their own, limited means. In Sierra Leone, police officers, military personnel and volunteers have been working tirelessly, with very little support or resources, to bring this epidemic under control.

Much like the war period a decade ago, children are once again the most vulnerable. Imagine scenes of children dying in the streets, mothers having to abandon their children to their own devices as they are confined in quarantine centres, street children with no options of sanitation or proper care. Do we not value Africans as worthy of our support?

Many organizations, such as the Center for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations are engaged, but on a practical, hands-on patient care level, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), is providing the bulk of Ebola treatment facilities in the entire region. And MSF is overwhelmed. It is vital that others now join to work with affected governments and their health and security sectors to provide a more comprehensive solution to affected communities.

This is a growing disaster that cannot be overcome with speeches and funding pledges. The Ebola epidemic requires concrete and immediately practical commitment in the form of delivered resources: the greatest need is for medical personnel, logistical support and Ebola treatment centers. If we fail to address this crisis adequately we run the very real risk of having all the investment and development efforts to date become null and void.

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Encouragingly, the United States has pledged such a response in Liberia, promising up to 3,000 medical military staff as other countries including the UK, China and Cuba are coming forward with much smaller contributions. While this represents a welcome shift, the crisis in West Africa still demands a far greater response, particularly in Sierra Leone and Guinea where the United States is not intervening.

Here, Canada can work in tandem with others, to provide and ensure similar interventions. Canada should reinforce and support the practical Ebola response capacity of West African governments. Again: the greatest need is for medical personnel, logistical support and Ebola treatment centers. We have ample capacity and resources to do this. Given our experience with SARS, this would also be an ideal opportunity to provide material and public health support from our provincial and federal ministries of health to West African nations.

Canada and the global community are confronted with an historic moment. This unprecedented disaster is different than any other outbreak the world has seen in modern history. Canada has the ability, and therefore the responsibility, to do more. Such momentous challenges demand momentous action by our leaders.

The time to act is now.

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