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Dr. Paul Farmer Joins West Africa's Fight Against Ebola


The loud call for more global support to help curb the Ebola outbreak in West Africa is on the way to being answered. The White House this week announced plans to send 3,000 military personnel, home medical kits and more to the region. And Dr. Paul Farmer, best known as cofounder of the international aid group Partners in Health, is stepping up with an effort to boost medical staff at local clinics and hospitals in the region.

PAUL FARMER: There's no need for the majority of people with Ebola to die if they're diagnosed quickly and receive effective and prompt supportive care.

CORNISH: Farmer's group has provided emergency aid during past disasters in Haiti and Rwanda. Now the group plans to set up four treatment centers in rural areas of Liberia in an effort to get ahead of the outbreak. We caught up with Dr. Farmer while he was in transit at the airport in Monrovia. In a recent op-ed piece, you said that, quote, "the Ebola crisis today is a reflection of long-standing and growing inequalities of access to basic healthcare." Do you think in some ways the toll of this epidemic has taken was inevitable?

FARMER: Well, I think that without a strong health system - which includes a public health system and the ability to deliver clinical services for the sick - without that, there's enormous risk from the new threat. And in this case, it's Ebola. In another case it may be another infectious pathogen. But yes, I think it was inevitable. And so rebuilding the health system needs to be linked to the emergency response. And it's easier to say than to do, but it is definitely not rocket science.

CORNISH: Now, what precautions are you taking to protect staff? We note that Doctors Without Borders, which has had an almost perfect record of keeping its medical workers safe, has had people contract Ebola.

FARMER: Right. Well, you know, the only good news in a setting of a lot of bad news is that as far as we can tell, strict adherence to infection control procedures will prevent all of the transmissions. So the problem is you need enormous reserves of personal protective equipment. And also, it's very difficult to wear such equipment for more than a couple of hours. It's hot inside them and, you know, people make mistakes, you know, everyone. And the only way to avoid them is to have adequate staff, stuff and space where those accidents are made highly unlikely. That's the only way we can see to protect our staff. And, you know, we're also thinking well, how do we protect the other main groups of people who are falling ill? And that's family members who are nursing their loved ones. That's something we're going to try and link to the protection of our staff to the protection of others at risk for the disease.

CORNISH: Finally, Dr. Farmer, there have been many calls for the global health community to respond faster. And there's been a sense that the international community hasn't moved as quickly on the Ebola crisis as they should have. Your organization at this point is collecting donations, is it not? And do you get a sense that the charity community is stepping up?

FARMER: I feel like it's turned around in the last month in terms of the attention paid. And that includes a large number of people volunteering who've stepped up to the plate. You know, Partners in Health, for example, the board of Partners in Health just last Thursday approved our deployment as it were. And within six days, we had almost, you know, 100 volunteers with professional expertise. You know, we've had a good response - not only from our American colleagues, but also from our colleagues in Africa and Haiti. One of the things that I think is not a well-known story yet is that there are Ugandan experts here as well who have significant experience in battling at least five epidemics of Ebola and they're here as well. So the African presence and our African colleagues - we're going to learn a lot from them as well.

CORNISH: Dr. Paul Farmer, thank you so much for speaking with us.

FARMER: A pleasure. And thank you for your interest in this story.

CORNISH: Dr. Paul Farmer. He spoke to us from Liberia about a new anti-Ebola effort by his organization Partners in Health. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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