The Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa has seized the world’s attention like a summer horror movie. The images of a terrible disease without a cure have surged across news and social media. Late last week, a spokesman for the World Health Organization said the scope of the outbreak appears to have been “vastly underestimated.” Tantalizing reports of experimental drugs have raised hopes and then deflated them. The drugs are not only unproven, but they also don’t yet exist in more than a tiny quantity.
Some of the reactions have been tinged with hysteria. When two aid workers returned to Atlanta for treatment, fear exploded online and on television that they perhaps were spreading the deadly virus to the United States. The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday warned about fraudulent offers for Ebola treatments or preventions being peddled online.
It is time to get sober, fast. The Ebola infections in four nations of West Africa may have been started by Mother Nature, but controlling them is now very much in the hand of humans. More than 1,000 people have died. Either the world gets this right or the outbreak will spread. Getting it right demands more personnel, material, money and speed from nations and public health authorities than has been applied in the past six months. There won’t be any magic bullet in a new drug or vaccine to save the day. The only way Ebola can be stopped is by control measures that are labor and resource intensive: finding and isolating those infected.
The inadequacy of current efforts to stop the disease is becoming increasingly clear. An 80-bed treatment center that opened in Monrovia, Liberia, filled immediately. The next day, dozens more people showed up to be treated. Experts going house to house in Sierra Leone in search of infected patients are discovering more cases that had not been detected.
A letter from Monrovia published by the Huffington Post declared that “the crisis seems to have overwhelmed the government. They need help.” The letter writer added, “The nice speeches and pronouncements are being made, but action and delivery are lacking.” The writer appealed for protective garments and other essentials, and he claimed that the largest hospital in Liberia did not have even one standard Ebola protective garment.
The president of Doctors Without Borders, which has done heroic work in confronting the outbreak, also confirmed on Friday that “extraordinary measures” are still needed. “We’re running behind a train that is going forward,” said the group’s president, Joanne Liu. “And it literally is faster than what we’re bringing in terms of a response.”
It is time to see the Ebola outbreak area as a global disaster zone and commit to what will probably be months of grueling work in challenging conditions, in locations of “extreme poverty, with dysfunctional health systems, a severe shortage of doctors and rampant fear,” as the WHO put it. Either the world mobilizes now, or the next fight against the disease will be even more frightening.