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Ebola Response Surging But So Is the Virus

James Knight and Ondraya Frick from U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases train U.S. Army soldiers who are earmarked for the fight against Ebola, before their deployment to West Africa, Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Oct. 9, 2014.

In recent weeks, there have been high-level international summits on the West African Ebola outbreak. Millions of dollars have been pledged. The United States, Britain and France have sent troops to help out in affected countries. Other nations, like Cuba, have sent medical staff. But the virus continues to outpace response efforts.

Since September 6, the number of Ebola cases and deaths reported by the World Health Organization has nearly doubled.

Forty percent of all those believed to have died because of the regional epidemic have died in the past month. Half of those deaths have been in Liberia.

Response efforts are surging, but it may still be weeks, or even months, before a major impact is felt.

Regional Ebola coordinator for the International Federation of the Red Cross, Birte Hald says, "Maybe you can compare it to a war that is escalating ... It's growing. It's getting bigger and bigger and we’re running faster and faster.”

On September 1 in Liberia, the Red Cross had six burial teams. Now it has more than 20, according to Hald, and by December that number will rise to 35.

Bed count has been a key metric in this response as getting patients into Ebola treatment units improves their chance of survival and gets them out of their homes and communities where they can infect others.

Liberia has added at least 422 beds since September 1, but the WHO said this week that Liberia still has just one-fifth of the beds its needs. Sierra Leone has about a quarter.

The Red Cross opened an Ebola treatment unit in Kenema, Sierra Leone in mid-September.

Africa communications manager for IFRC, Katherine Mueller, is there in Kenema. She says the 30-bed clinic is full most days. They want to scale up to 60 beds but they can’t get the international staff they need.

“Just like people here in country are frightened of Ebola, we are finding that international health care workers are also frightened of Ebola," she said. "Their families are worried and scared for them if they come here so we really need to make sure that we increase the sensitization, not just here in country but internationally as well.”

VOA spoke to several other NGO’s operating treatment units in affected countries who said the same thing. They are struggling to get the doctors, nurses and other experts they need to work alongside newly trained local staff.

Doctors without Borders turned down a $2.2 million donation from the Australian government earlier this month and asked it to send medical workers instead.

Three hundred U.S. troops are now in Liberia building the first three of 17 Ebola treatment units the military plans to set up there, but progress has been slow amid heavy rains and other logistical challenges.

Liberian physician’s assistant Alfred Tommey says it’s hard not to get impatient.

“It’s gonna take time and every time, every minute along the way, somebody is dying of Ebola so this is a serious concern,” he said.

Liberia’s health ministry says it now has 700 health workers trained and working in Ebola treatment units. That’s up from 150 just six weeks ago. However, the country’s health workers union is threatening to strike for more hazard pay.

A development that several aid workers pointed to as a key advance are the mobile labs that have been deployed by several countries, including the United States. In the three most affected countries, there are now 11 labs operating at full capacity.

Liberia is testing 500 specimens a day, almost four times what they could test just a little over a month ago.

Prince Collins reported from Monrovia.

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