The deadly Ebola virus, which raged through three West African nations from 2014-2016, now threatens major urban populations in the Africa’s fourth most populous nation — the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This latest outbreak not only imperils the health of the Congolese people, it endangers peace and stability in a region core to American national security interests and causes Americans to question, once again, whether Ebola can be contained.
As it has in the past, the U.S. Government must help lead the international response and ensure that first responders have the resources they need to act quickly and decisively. While the U.S. is planning to send millions to support the global response, weeks earlier the Office of Management and Budget proposed that Congress cut $252 million in emergency funds which can be used for building local capacities to spot and counter Ebola outbreaks like this one and others over Africa.
While the White House would argue that more resources may be available to respond to the DRC outbreak if necessary, the lesson from 2014 makes abundantly clear that Ebola outbreaks require funding that is immediately available and sustained to address the scope of the crisis.
When Ebola struck Liberia for example, it disrupted Liberia’s healthcare system. Child immunizations slowed, leaving children vulnerable to outbreaks of infectious diseases like measles.
Congress must reject this cut and instead engage in an urgent dialogue with the World Health Organization, governments in the region and officials in our own government to determine the financial and logistical needs this outbreak requires. Congress should feel confident that U.S. Government resources will be well spent and have an immediate impact.
I recently returned from Liberia, one of the epicenters of the previous Ebola outbreaks. I was briefed by a team of U.S. Government and World Health Organization officials about “lessons learned” in the outbreak which impacted Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea — an epidemic which caused more than 11-thousand deaths, in part due to a slow and ineffective response.
The region is better prepared for an Ebola outbreak now, due to the sustained efforts of the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. Department of Defense, the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health and the World Health Organization.
Here’s what’s changed:
- The capabilities of laboratories in the region have been boosted dramatically – meaning that doctors and nurses can diagnose Ebola faster.
- Doctors, nurses, and other public health professionals in the region have been better trained on how to treat Ebola patients without getting infected.
- Emergency response operations centers have been established — a “central command” for first responders — to coordinate the response among agencies and governments.
- An experimental Ebola vaccine has been developed, allowing health officials to vaccinate people in a ring around suspected outbreaks.
We are seeing the results of these changes now in the Democratic Republic of Congo. To put it simply: The world is better prepared for an infectious disease outbreak today than it was three years ago, and the global community can respond with more speed and agility.
The World Health Organization immediately convened its emergency committee, deployed its experts to the field and dispatched doses of the vaccine to the affected area. World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has already visited the affected towns.
From the U.S. Government, the Centers for Disease Control invested in the DR Congo’s National Emergency Response Center to ensure a coordinated response to Ebola instead of the haphazard actions by national and global actors which marked the early days of the previous West Africa outbreak.
USAID dispatched protective equipment to the country to prevent medical professionals from becoming infected, and lab equipment to allow for real-time surveillance of the Ebola outbreak. (Previously the lack of nearby laboratories caused major delays in getting test results, which undermined the ability of health workers to respond quickly).
These types of interventions require money, which is why the proposed U.S. budget rescission for Ebola response is so misguided. While key U.S. agencies may have enough funds for these early actions initially, we know that the Congo outbreak will likely require a sustained response over an extended period.
Until widespread vaccination can occur in the region, Ebola outbreaks will remain a fact of life, requiring continued U.S. and global interventions to keep the outbreak from spreading.
We in the U.S. should be proud of our government’s role in helping the global community better prepare for, prevent, detect and respond to a global health care crisis like Ebola. We are helping to save thousands of lives, while protecting the health of citizens around the world, including our own.
The Office of Management and Budget’s $252 million cut to Ebola funds remains on the table. Congress should oppose any attempts to slash the emergency funds meant to prevent and respond to Ebola outbreaks. The U.S. must ensure this funding remains available and fully partner with the World Health Organization so we can address this crisis proactively rather than reactively.
Peter Yeo is the senior vice president of the United Nations Foundation.