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Relief Group: Ebola 'Moving Faster' Than It Can Handle

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Medical staff working with Medecins sans Frontieres bring food to patients isolated at a treatment center in Kailahun, Sierra Leone, July 20, 2014.

Medical staff working with Medecins sans Frontieres bring food to patients isolated at a treatment center in Kailahun, Sierra Leone, July 20, 2014.

The head of an international medical aid group says the Ebola outbreak in West Africa is moving faster that relief workers can respond to it and may take six months to bring under control

Speaking Friday in Geneva after a 10-day trip to the affected region, Joanne Liu, international president of Doctors Without Borders (MFS), said more health experts are needed to treat patients.

The region "had the feeling that it is like wartime in terms of ... general fear," she said of her visit, adding that the outbreak's magnitude has strained health care centers.

"We have a total collapse of infrastructure in some places," she said, adding that 80 health care workers have died from Ebola and 170 have been infected.

“In terms of stability, I think that in Guinea, because they have been dealing with this for five months, has more measures being put in place," she said. "They have more capacity as well as a greater understanding of what is going on."

Liberia targeted

While infections in both Sierra Leone and Liberia continue to grow at a steady rate, she said the situation in Liberia is the most dangerous and in dire need of urgent stabilization.

"If we do not stabilize Liberia, we will never stabilize the whole region,” she said.

Liu also criticized the World Health Organization (WHO) for waiting until Aug. 8 to label Ebola a "public health emergency of international concern," saying the organization needed to show stronger leadership.

"Now we have to find out how that [statement] is translated to concrete action in the field," Liu said. "A statement will save lives only if followed up on the ground."

Combatting the outbreak, which Liu said will take about six months to bring under control, requires "people with a hands-on operational mindset."

Also Friday, international Red Cross chief Elhadj As Sy echoed some of Liu's concerns, saying the outbreak had stretched capacities of the group's relief partners "to the maximum."

"We need to be vigilant because we have seen in the past that as soon as you start getting complacent and see that cases are going down, then you slow down your response [and risk a] relapse," he said.

Outbreak 'vastly' underestimated

On Thursday, the WHO warned the magnitude of the Ebola outbreak had been "vastly" underestimated.

The U.N. agency said 1,069 people have died of Ebola this year in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.

The total number of cases is estimated at just under 2,000, but some public health experts, including Liu, say many cases are going unreported as patients resist hospitals and isolation wards, preferring to entrust their care to family members instead.

In a statement, the U.N. health agency said it was concerned those numbers do not reflect the true gravity of the situation. Liberia and Sierra Leone, the two hardest hit countries so far, have reported at least 182 new cases in the past week.

Public health authorities in affected countries say they need more resources as they scramble to stop the spread of the disease and isolate those already infected.

Treatment centers

In Monrovia, Liberia, MSF is building its largest Ebola treatment center yet, which will have 120 beds. MSF also runs a treatment unit in the northern border town of Foya, in Lofa County.

Lofa and Montserrado counties are among the hardest hit in Liberia, whose health ministry is rolling out a new strategy to manage the high volume of suspected cases in those districts.

Assistant Health Minister Tolbert Nyensuah says health workers will go to the patients, instead of the other way around.

“Making sure that that patient cannot infect other household members and providing some level of care at the household level," he said.

In August, both Liberia and Sierra Leone enacted emergency rule and quarantined the most affected districts. Security forces have set up roadblocks and shut borders.

There is no known cure or vaccine for Ebola, though a WHO panel this week backed plans to give some patients unproven drugs to fight the virus.

A limited supply of an untested, U.S.-produced drug, known as ZMapp, arrived Wednesday in Liberia, where it will be given to two doctors.

Officials there must now decide who will else receive the remaining doses of the drug, supplies of which could take months to refill.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama stressed the U.S. is committed to working with West African countries to help contain the outbreak.

The White House said Obama underscored his commitment on separate phone calls Thursday to Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma.

VOA West Africa Correspondent Anne Look contributed to this report, along with Lisa Schlein in Geneva, Adam Bailes in Freetown, Prince Collins in Monrovia and Patrick Jackema in Kenema, Sierra Leone. Some information for this report comes from Reuters.

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