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If we want to combat Ebola, the time to act is now

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Four years after the world’s largest Ebola epidemic claimed more than 11,000 lives in West Africa, a new outbreak of the deadly virus is brewing, this time in Democratic Republic of Congo.

In sharp contrast to the 2014-2016 outbreak — when authorities delayed several months before declaring a global public health emergency — the World Health Organization and major donors this time have moved quickly to prepare.

Since the first case was reported in early May, the U.S. has provided up to $8 million, the UK $6.7 million and the European Union has activated its civilian protection force which is providing personnel and equipment.

{mosads}The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s $57 million emergency response plan was fully funded in just two days, with the World Bank tapping its new Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility (PEP) to provide $12 million, while other groups, including experienced non-government humanitarian aid agencies such as my organization, International Medical Corps, are ready to go. Still, some worry that governments may want to wait for the outbreak to grow larger before actually launching their response.

 

Such hesitancy would be both wrong and potentially dangerous.

The challenge for major government and corporate donors now is to assure this initial preparation translates into action on the ground without delay — that the appropriated funding is put to work quickly, before the highly infectious virus spreads further and the new outbreak gets out of hand.

The window for effective early action is invariably small in such emergencies. In Democratic Republic of the Congo, it is already closing. Although fewer than one hundred cases have so far been detected, we know from the West African experience that if allowed to simmer, Ebola can quickly explode to threaten nations and peoples anywhere.

Americans learned that lesson during the 2014-2016 outbreak after a Liberian national who had flown to the U.S., was diagnosed with Ebola and died at a Dallas hospital, infecting two of the facility’s nurses. The nurses survived but the incident touched off an instant public health scare across the U.S.

With proven direct interests, America must be prepared to do what is needed to help contain the current outbreak at its source, while the U.S. medical community sustains its call for the kind of swift and strong response needed to keep the Democratic Republic of the Congo and all nations—including America—safe.

The stakes are high. Nearly four in ten of the 28,000-plus who contracted the virus during the 2014-2016 outbreak did not survive. Ebola can also be difficult to diagnose quickly because so many of its symptoms, including fever, vomiting, weakness and fatigue, mirror those of other tropical diseases such as malaria.

Initially restricted to villages in the country’s thinly populated Bikoro region, by mid-May the virus had been detected in the large Congo River port city of Mbandaka about 90 miles to the north. As the first case detected in an urban area, alarmed public health officials immediately called it a game-changer.

The Congo River constitutes the country’s major transportation route, with Mbandaka located at roughly the halfway point on the river between the 10 million residents of country’s capital, Kinshasa, to the south, and the city of Kisangani to the east with its 1.6 million people.

Just opposite Kinshasa on the Congo River lies the capital of the neighboring Republic of Congo, Brazzaville, with its1.8 million people. Each of these cities has a major airport that carries people and products across and the world. The potential is there for the virus to spread extremely fast.

Equally concerning for epidemiologists is the trade that takes place along the Congo River as barges, effectively floating markets, interact with scores of towns and villages along the river. If we act fast and the outbreak can be contained quickly, the cost could be relatively modest — a fraction of the estimated $3.2 billion price tag of the West African outbreak that took more than two years to contain.

The good news is that the public health community is far better prepared to fight an Ebola outbreak than it was four years ago. We learned during 2014-2016 epidemic, including how the disease spreads, about the importance of tracing patient contacts, of effective screening for those infected with the virus, then isolating those diagnosed with Ebola from the general population for treatment in special facilities. There is an experimental vaccine and promising new treatments.

It is time to act.

William Garvelink is the International Medical Corps chief compliance officer. He served as the U.S. Ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo from 2007-2010.

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