A Global Response to the Ebola Outbreak

EarthzineEarth Observation

ebola-monitorAs the Ebola epidemic continues to wreak havoc in the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, the United Nations (UN) is coordinating an international response to fight the deadly virus. On Sept. 19, the organization established the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER), via a Security Council Resolution co-sponsored by 134 member states.

The Mission’s primary goals are: stopping the spread of Ebola, treating the infected, ensuring essential services, preserving stability, and preventing further outbreaks. The World Health Organization (WHO) continues to lead the effort’s health strategy, but UNMEER is overseeing the entire mission and will coordinate efforts across agencies and international borders.

As of Nov. 4, there have been 13,567 cases, classified as probable, confirmed, or suspected, and 4,591 deaths. Outside of the hardest hit regions, there have been 20 cases of Ebola in Nigeria, one case in Senegal, one case in Spain, and four cases in the United States.

Distribution of Ebola cases in countries with intense transmission. Image Credit: UNMEER data

Distribution of Ebola cases in countries with intense transmission. Image Credit: UNMEER data

WHO has declared Nigeria and Senegal free of Ebola after the last individuals reported to have been in contact with Ebola patients or tested positive for the disease completed a 42-day observation period.

According to Anthony Banbury, deputy Ebola coordinator and operation crisis manager, the Mission has targeted Dec. 1 as the deadline for ensuring that 70 percent of infected patients are in care facilities and 70 percent of burials are undertaken in a way that does not allow for further transmission of the virus.

Banbury emphasized that as time passes, the rate of infection grows exponentially; failing to meet this deadline will lead to a dramatic spike in the number of infected patients. ‰ÛÏIf we fail in any one area, then the microscopic virus will find a chink in our armour and continue to spread,‰Û he said.

By Dec. 1, UNMEER and WHO are predicting the potential for as many as 10,000 patients per week in the hardest hit regions.

Stopping Ebola will require an unprecedented international response. The list of needs is great — beds and treatment facilities, protective gear, medical personnel, laboratories, vehicles, helicopters, and people trained to help track those who have been in contact with Ebola patients.

In addition to treatment facilities, there is a growing concern about how to staff those facilities with trained medical personnel. This concern has prompted criticisms of travel bans and restricting movements of healthcare workers returning to their home countries after serving in West Africa. Doctors Without Borders issued a statement about mandatory quarantines of asymptomatic healthcare workers. The organization believes these measures are not based on the best science, and will hamper efforts to fight the disease by discouraging volunteers.

Ebola Treatment Unit (ETU) beds available and needed in the immediate future. Image Credit: UNMEER External Situation Report

Ebola Treatment Unit (ETU) beds available and needed in the immediate future. Image Credit: UNMEER External Situation Report

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, “The best way to stop this virus is to stop the virus at its source rather than limiting, restricting the movement of people or trade. Particularly when there are some unnecessary extra restrictions and discriminations against health workers.”

Logistical support is being airlifted into the region from the United Kingdom, the European Union, Korea, and Canada. The United States has deployed responders from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and US Agency for International Development (USAID) to assist. U.S. President Barack Obama activated the National Guard and Reserve; they will be deployed to West Africa to help build treatment centers.

With 7,740 schools closed in Sierre Leone, children are now tuning in to radio stations via an emergency radio education program run by the country’s Ministry of Education with support from UNICEF. Lessons are broadcasted on more than 40 radio stations in the country. Liberia also is using radio broadcasts to reach roughly 1.5 million people with messages about prevention and protection.

On Oct. 16, the UN reported that the Ebola crisis also is thwarting progress made in the UN’s Safe Motherhood efforts. According to the UN, 800,000 women in affected countries are expected to give birth in the next year, ‰ÛÏbut many pregnant women are afraid to visit, or are turned away from, overstretched health facilities.‰Û The added strain on healthcare systems also means that an estimated 1.2 million women will not have access to reproductive and family planning care, which will lead to a rise in pregnancies.

‰ÛÏTime is our biggest enemy,‰Û Bandbury told the UN on Oct. 14. ‰ÛÏWe either stop Ebola now, or we face an entirely unprecedented situation for which we do not have a plan.‰Û