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Health Officials Warn Ebola Is Spreading Faster Than Efforts To Contain It


The World Health Organization is making an urgent plea for volunteers, money and regional cooperation to combat West Africa's Ebola outbreak. The director general of the WHO, Margaret Chan, spoke today in Washington. She said the outbreak is now a global threat.

MARGARET CHAN: This Ebola epidemic is the largest and most severe and most complex we have ever seen in the nearly 40-year history of this disease.

BLOCK: Chan says one of the things that's most needed to contain it is international health professional. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports this appeal for more medical volunteers comes as another American doctor has come down with Ebola in Liberia.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Dr. Rick Sacra wasn't supposed to be treating Ebola patients. The 51-year-old Boston physician went to Liberia this summer with the missionary aid group SIM International. He'd been helping deliver babies and providing other routine medical care. Bruce Johnson, the head of SIM, says they still don't know how Sacra was exposed to the potentially deadly virus.

BRUCE JOHNSON: We have no confirmation at this time about the exact contact point that Dr. Sacra had with Ebola or contracted it.

BEAUBIEN: Two other American missionaries who contracted the disease this summer were medevaced back to Atlanta and treated with the experimental Ebola drug ZMapp. They've both now recovered. Johnson says his organization is weighing all treatment options for Sacra, but for now he's being cared for in Monrovia and ZMapp is no longer available.

JOHNSON: Our understanding is there is no more ZMapp in the world, according to news reports that we've seen.

BEAUBIEN: The company that makes ZMapp plans to try to produce more. But Johnson is correct that right now there simply isn't any. And the situation on the ground is getting worse every day. The World Health Organization, in its latest report on the crisis, says that 40 percent of all the people infected with Ebola this year contracted it over just the last three weeks. And efforts to combat the outbreak still face huge challenges. The local healthcare systems in Sierra Leone and Liberia have collapsed as health care workers have gotten Ebola and others have refused to work. The affected countries lack medical supply, ambulances, money to pay nurses, even food. Shipping lines are refusing to dock in the region's ports. And most commercial airlines won't fly into the Ebola-affected country. WHO Director Margaret Chan says a group of infection control experts from the WHO couldn't get flights into West Africa.

CHAN: We are not able - we are not able to deploy them because there is no airline going to them.

BEAUBIEN: She says many countries in the region are even refusing to allow U.N. and other humanitarian flights from the Ebola response to touch down on their soil. The WHO has launched a $600 million plan to try to contain this outbreak. Chan says it needs to be put in place rapidly.

CHAN: We can and we will bring the Ebola epidemic under control.

BEAUBIEN: So far, the inertia of the international response is in stark contrast to what happened during recent natural disasters. The WHO's Keiji Fukuda says after the typhoon last year in the Philippines, 150 international medical groups sent more than 2,500 health care workers into the area. During this crisis, Doctors Without Borders, with the help of just a handful of other relief agencies, has shouldered the bulk of the work. Fukuda says the international capacity to respond to Ebola exists, yet foreign health care workers aren't rushing to help.

KEIJI FUKUDA: Why are they not coming in? Dealing with an infection like Ebola is not like dealing with a disaster. You know, the reasons why we're seeing airlines shut down really have to do with these fact that we're dealing with a very high level of anxiety among the responders themselves as well as the people on ground.

BEAUBIEN: Fukuda says that anxiety is understandable, especially as more people get infected every day. But he says the outbreak won't be contained unless more health care workers actually arrive on the ground. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.
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