Editorial Board

Staging an Ebola Counterattack

Ebola has blown out of control in Africa because the world didn't recognize early on what resources were needed to contain it. Now, a full-scale international emergency response is needed.
Collaboration is the key.

Ebola didn't blow out of control in West Africa because it was so infectious. It spread because the world -- the governments of the affected countries, the World Health Organization -- didn't recognize early on what resources it would take to contain it. At this point, a full-scale international emergency response is urgently needed.

As Doctors Without Borders President Joanne Liu told the United Nations on Tuesday, "To put out this fire, we must run into the burning building."

QuickTake Ebola

The U.S. government has already sent a small team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but that won't fill the manpower gap. The U.S. has also committed $24.9 million to support the development and manufacture of an experimental Ebola treatment called ZMapp, but there's no guarantee it will work or that enough can be produced in time to make a major difference.

The U.S. would do better to base its Ebola response on its management of medical assistance after Haiti's catastrophic earthquake in 2010. A campaign coordinated by the U.S. Agency for International Development enabled military personnel and civilian volunteers to work together effectively, in collaboration with the Haitian government.

Those teams faced aftershocks, flooding, mudslides and cholera outbreaks. Ebola workers confront even greater dangers. Exposure to the body fluids of a patient can prove fatal: Health workers have accounted for about 10 percent of deaths in the outbreak.

Reducing that danger -- with protective masks, goggles, gowns and boots, plus training and experience using this gear -- is the key to containing the epidemic. The U.S. and other developed nations have significant numbers of medical, research and emergency personnel who are well equipped to cope safely with biohazards. They include medical workers who deal with MRSA (a drug-resistant bacterial infection), researchers who manipulate toxic agents, police trained to respond to bioterrorism and soldiers equipped to face biological weapons.

Given the urgency, the affected countries should request that governments immediately send military teams of doctors, nurses, researchers, police and soldiers linked in a chain of command. That even Doctors Without Borders, a left-leaning group, has called for military involvement is a sign of how desperately this help is needed.

Governments also should encourage civilian groups, such as medical schools, to contribute personnel to work with the military units, as they did in Haiti.

These workers will need to build and operate additional treatment centers as well as new lab facilities where Ebola diagnoses can be made.

Only a week ago Ebola's death toll was 1,552 people. Yesterday the World Health Organization said it had risen to more than 1,900. Yet Ebola can be defeated, and it's no mystery how: The sick must be identified and isolated, their contacts traced and monitored for symptoms. The remedy is more and better resources, from the countries that have them.

    --Editors: Lisa Beyer, Mary Duenwald

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    David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net

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