UN Urges More Help to Fight Ebola as Hundreds Are Tracked in Mali

Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (right) meets health workers on Nov. 17 in the village of Kouremale, near the border with Guinea Photograph by AFP via Getty Images

The world needs more help to contain the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, even as cases are slowing in Liberia, leaders of the United Nations said after a meeting in Washington today.

“Results to date are uneven. The rate of transmission continues to increase in many places,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said. He called for more international health workers and urged countries to avoid travel bans or other measures that could impede the response.

Officials are monitoring nearly 500 people in Mali after a grand imam from Guinea who traveled there for treatment died in late October. Margaret Chan, the director-general of the World Health Organization, planned to travel to Mali after the meeting, and the UN is establishing an emergency response mission there. “We must smother this little fire, little smoke, before it gets out of control,” Chan said.

Ban said the success isolating Ebola patients and safely burying those who die in some areas demonstrates that the UN’s plan (pdf) to contain the epidemic can work. “We are seeing the curve bending in enough places to give us hope,” he said. “If we continue to accelerate our response, we can contain and end the outbreak by the middle of next year.”

The global community is falling behind on the UN’s targets for treatment beds and burial teams. Just a quarter of the beds called for by Dec. 1 were in place this week, according to the latest data from the WHO, and less than half of the needed burial teams. Despite the shortfall, the U.S. is scaling back its military response in Liberia as the rate of new cases there appears to be declining.

Ban Ki-moon said the spread of the virus is still outpacing the response. As Laurie Garrett, of the Council on Foreign Relations, pointed out on Twitter, the challenge for the UN is to keep the world’s attention on the outbreak, even as efforts to contain it appear to be succeeding in some places.

Bruce Aylward, the WHO official in charge of the response, has previously warned about waning global interest if new cases decline. Even a small number of Ebola infections have the potential to flare into larger outbreaks. “I’m terrified that the information will be misinterpreted and people will start to say, ‘Oh great, Ebola is under control,’” Aylward said in a briefing on Oct. 29, discussing reports of declining cases in Liberia. “That’s like saying your pet tiger is under control.”

He didn’t know it then, but new chains of transmission were already spreading the virus in Mali, where the imam had died two days earlier. Five new infections in Mali have been linked to the imam’s treatment so far. Four of the patients had died as of Nov. 20. Hundreds more are being monitored for signs of the disease. “Complacency will be our enemy,” Chan said, before leaving to board a plane to Mali.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
    LEARN MORE