WASHINGTON — Warning that the international community neglected the initial outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, a relief agency testified before Congress about the need to take the disease seriously in order to contain it.
“[T]he international response to the disease has been a failure,” said Ken Isaacs, vice president of program and government relations for Christian aid organization Samaritan’s Purse.
He told members of Congress Aug. 7 that the world was comfortable allowing just a few relief agencies to shoulder the burden of the disease when it broke out in three countries.
“It took two Americans getting the disease in order for the international community and the United States to take serious notice of the largest outbreak of the disease in history,” he said.
Now, Isaacs warned, the outbreak “threatens the stability of the three countries it affects,” with “the potential to destabilize entire countries,” as gangs threaten hospitals and citizens distrust the health workers and government institutions working toward containment.
“The disease is out of control,” he stressed. “If we don’t fight and contain this in Africa, we will be fighting to contain this around the world.”
This is the first known major outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, spreading across Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone since March. The World Health Organization has confirmed that the epidemic has killed more than 900 people, and infected more than 1,700.
The disease, which first emerged in 1976, mimics many other tropical diseases in its early stages, emerging two to 21 days after exposure and featuring symptoms such as fever, sore throat fatigue, muscle pain and headaches. However, Ebola can quickly escalate, leading to vomiting, diarrhea, rash, liver and kidney damage and in some cases internal and external bleeding.
The World Health Organization states that Ebola can kill up to 90% of those infected. The current outbreak has roughly a 60% mortality rate.
Currently, there are no specific treatments or vaccines for the disease, though there are experimental drugs that have been used on some patients.
Two American medical missionaries working with Samaritan’s Purse — Dr. Kent Brantly and nurse Nancy Writebol — have received an experimental antibody serum after contracting the disease while working in an Ebola care center in Liberia. Since then, they have been flown to the United States to receive treatment in an isolation unit at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.
Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that while the unprecedented outbreak, particularly its recent spread to Nigeria, is troubling, it “can be contained."
“We can stop Ebola: We know how to do it,” he said. “It won’t be quick, and it won’t be easy,” but health workers and communities can work to “stop it at the source through tried and true means.”
Frieden said efforts should focus on containment, including the identification of individual cases, the isolation of victims and tracking down all of a victim’s contacts.
He also explained that health workers are seeking to educate the public on the disease’s spread through close physical contact with sick people and potentially through the ingestion of bush meat — particularly bats — which may be a natural reservoir for the disease.
“We and our partners have stopped every Ebola outbreak to date,” Frieden said. “Stopping outbreaks where they occur is the most effective and least expensive way to protect people’s health.”
Bisa Williams, deputy assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, said that this outbreak is “one of the most daunting challenges those countries and the region has faced in decades.”
Recent conflicts have made it harder for countries to react to the crisis, Williams said, and the uncontrolled nature of this outbreak “reflects the lack of national capacity to limit the spread of disease and treat patients.”
Chris Smith, R-N.J., chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa and Human Rights, who hosted the emergency hearing, urged Congress to address any shortcomings in Ebola response in West Africa: “We need to take seriously the effort to devise more effective means of addressing this and all neglected tropical diseases.”