It will take months to curb an Ebola outbreak in West Africa that probably involves far more cases than the 2,100 officially recorded by governments there, global health leaders said.
“We are not talking weeks; we’re talking about months to get an upper hand on the epidemic,” Joanne Liu, international president of Doctors Without Borders, said yesterday at a news conference in Geneva.
Liu, whose organization has almost 700 health workers in West Africa, said a turnaround should take six months and called for more help by global health groups against the outbreak. She said others need to “step up to the plate” in aiding the four countries battling the virus.
“It needs to happen now if we want to contain this epidemic,” Liu said. She said more health-care workers are needed to follow up on cases and educate the public about what the disease and the outbreak entails.
“Some of our staff, they are not accepted in their village anymore,” Liu said. The outbreak “will only improve if we improve understanding of the disease. Everyone is living with fear.”
Liu’s comments followed by a day a statement from the World Health Organization that their staff members “at the outbreak sites see evidence that the number of reported cases and deaths vastly underestimate the magnitude of the outbreak.”
The Geneva-based agency has reported 1,145 deaths among the 2,127 people infected by the virus as of Aug. 13. The World Food Programme also said yesterday that 1 million people need food aid in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, the countries hardest hit by the epidemic.
Food, including cooked meals, is being transported into the countries by truck, Steve Taravella, a World Food Programme spokesman, said in a telephone interview. The outbreak has recently spread to Nigeria, with 12 of the total cases reported there.
Guinea is strengthening security at its borders with Liberia and Sierra Leone, which remain open, and will deploy 42 additional military doctors and 42 civilian doctors at border crossings, Remy Lamah, Guinea’s minister of health, told reporters today in the capital of Conakry.
Kenya Airways will suspend flights to Liberia and Sierra Leone effective Aug. 19, the airline said today in an e-mail, citing the risk assessments by Kenya’s ministry of health and the WHO. The airline will continue flying to Nigeria and Ghana.
Aid groups including Doctors Without Borders have criticized the WHO and governments, including the U.S., for failing to recognize the devastation being caused since January by the spread of the deadly virus. It’s the first time Ebola has appeared in West Africa.
Ebola, which can cause bleeding from the eyes, ears and nose, has killed as many as 90 percent of those infected in the past. In this outbreak more than 40 percent have survived. Researchers are quickening their efforts to test experimental medicines and vaccines for the virus.
The WHO said it’s “coordinating a massive scaling up of the international response, marshaling support from individual countries, disease control agencies, agencies within the United Nations system, and others.”
The WHO on Aug. 8 declared the Ebola outbreak an international public health emergency. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has added 50 public-health workers to its staff in the region.
There is no approved cure for Ebola. Normal treatment involves keeping patients hydrated, replacing lost blood and using antibiotics to fight opportunistic infections. The hope is that a patient’s immune system will eventually fight off the virus’s aggressive attack.
Two American health workers infected with the virus in Liberia have received an experimental medicine from Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc. and appear to be improving. Mapp’s antibody is one of several experimental treatments in development.
Three infected Liberian health workers received the Mapp drug yesterday at a hospital near the capital of Monrovia, according to Tolbert G. Nyenswah, an assistant minister of health and social welfare, the New York Times reported today. Nyenswah didn’t say whether any of the three were doctors.
The Canadian government has said it will donate as many as 1,000 doses of a vaccine that could help protect medical workers as they fight Ebola in West Africa, though it may take at least a month as officials weigh whether it is safe.
The WHO warned yesterday in a statement that the public had “unrealistic expectations” of the experimental treatments.
“While many efforts are under way to accelerate production, supplies will not be augmented for several months to come,” the agency said. “Even then, supplies will be too small to have a significant impact on the outbreak.”