The World Health Organization’s emergency committee will meet next week to tackle the worst ever outbreak of the Ebola virus, which has killed at least 729 people in West Africa including 60 medical workers.
“This outbreak is moving faster than our efforts to control it,” said Margaret Chan, the WHO director-general, in remarks prepared for a meeting with presidents of the affected nations today in Guinea, where the outbreak began in March.
Taming the outbreak has been difficult because some families have hidden their ill relatives out of fear, Chan said. The WHO and the hardest-hit countries will pump $100 million into an intensified campaign that will deploy several hundred more health workers in the region where the virus has killed 57 people in the past week.
Two Americans infected with Ebola will be evacuated from Liberia in the coming days and brought to the U.S. for treatment, Marie Harf, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, said in a statement. Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, one of four medical facilities set up in collaboration with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to deal with highly infectious diseases, is preparing for at least one of the patients, the hospital said.
Two American citizens who had been working at an Ebola treatment center in Liberia were identified as being infected. The two -- Kent Brantly, a doctor, and Nancy Writebol, an aid worker -- have been treated during the past week in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital.
The CDC also promised increased aid for the effort in Africa. The Atlanta-based agency plans to add 50 more health workers to its present staff in West Africa, Director Thomas Frieden said yesterday. Stemming the tide of the outbreak may take three to six months, he said.
The Ebola outbreak in West Africa “requires WHO and Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone to take the response to a new level,” Chan said. It requires “increased resources, in-country medical expertise, regional preparedness and coordination.”
The WHO said it now has more about 120 staff in the region. The Geneva-based agency is seeking doctors, nurses, epidemiologists, social mobilization experts, logisticians and data managers to support that group. The WHO’s emergency committee will assess the international implications of the outbreak at its Aug. 6 meeting.
“Given the size of the outbreak, it’s not been managed adequately enough, otherwise we wouldn’t have seen such a big outbreak,” said Paul Hunter, an expert in emerging infectious diseases at the University of East Anglia in the U.K. “I don’t know why WHO didn’t have a stronger presence early on.”
In Sierra Leone, which had eight new cases and nine deaths in the past week, President Ernest Bai Koroma declared a state of emergency that included quarantines and a ban on public gatherings. President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, where there were 80 new cases and 27 deaths, announced similar efforts a day earlier. Both canceled trips to Washington for a summit next week.
ArcelorMittal, which operates an iron-ore mine in Liberia, is using thermal scanners at all its facilities to help detect the virus, Chief Financial Officer Aditya Mittal said today.
“So far, there has not been a disruption to our operations, but clearly this is a daily challenge,” he said.
Unlike past outbreaks in isolated areas in single countries, the current one spans at least three countries with “very migrant populations moving across borders all the time,” said Jeremy Farrar, an infectious disease specialist at Oxford University and director of the Wellcome Trust, a London-based medical research charity. The region has never experienced an Ebola outbreak, Farrar said.
“We’ve got a broader issue around leadership in health care, particularly when it comes to rapidly emerging health problems, whether it’s malaria resistance in southeast Asia, or Ebola in Africa or flu,” Farrar said in an interview. “Our ability to respond to those I don’t think is fit for purpose.”
Ebola is believed to be carried by rats, bats and other animals and spread to humans through contact with bodily fluids. Humans pass the virus on to each other through contact with secretions. The disease, first reported in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1976, has shown an incubation period of four days to six days in the latest outbreak and can cause bleeding from the eyes, ears and nose.
While Ebola has historically killed as many as 90 percent of those who contract it, the current outbreak has seen a fatality rate of only 60 percent, probably because of early treatment efforts, officials have said.
There is no cure for Ebola. Treatment relies on the immune system to fight off the disease. Patients are given replenishing fluids, their blood pressure is maintained through infusions, and infections are fought with antibiotics.