After a slow start, the world community is finally reacting to the Ebola outbreak in Africa. The decision last week by two of the hardest-hit nations, Liberia and Sierra Leone, to deploy military forces in an effort to wall-off at-risk communities shows how desperate and unprepared these nations are to deal with the crisis on their own. Now labeled a global health emergency, the outbreak is hardly one that respects national borders. The United States, United Nations and other major players need to act with more focus and urgency.
As of Friday, according to the World Health Organization, 1,779 confirmed and suspected cases of Ebola virus infection had been reported, with 961 people killed. Ebola outbreaks occur primarily in remote areas of Central and West Africa. The virus is transmitted to people through contact with infected animals and spread throughout the population through human contact with infected blood and bodily fluids. There is no known cure for the fast-moving disease, which has a mortality rate of up to 90 percent. About 54 percent of those infected in the current outbreak have died.
Deploying forces to contain the movement of people to and from infected areas should help with managing the outbreak, especially given that Liberia and Sierra Leone account for nearly two-thirds of those killed. The move also should make it easier for authorities to target public education campaigns where they are needed. Some of the heaviest lifting involves changing social norms, such as impressing the need for people to exercise safer hygiene when handling the sick or burying the dead.
President Barack Obama announced Thursday that the United States is sending medical teams to West Africa. The U.S. is also working with the African Union to create the equivalent of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the nation's health protection agency, in Africa to strengthen the public health care system on that continent. That is a significant step that should bring new technical expertise, financial assistance and clinical facilities to communities across Africa, bringing much-needed primary care to the local level. The World Health Organization also announced Friday that this worst Ebola outbreak in history constituted a global health emergency, a finding that should bring new attention and resources to this fight.
The outbreak has raised questions about medical ethics after two U.S. aid workers but no Africans afflicted by the disease were given an experimental drug to fight the virus. Obama struck the right chord by underscoring that the jury is out on the drug and highlighting the need for early intervention instead.
The federal government should work quickly in reviewing treatment options for Ebola, but any drug or vaccine must be safe before being allowed to proceed to the open market. The focus now should be on providing Africa with the tools that are known to work — trained personnel, clinical capacity and a public education campaign that can stop the virus from spreading.