The Ebola crisis in four West African nations has far outpaced the ability of health organizations to keep up with the deadly disease, which is spreading rapidly.
That's the grim news from the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC)
Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, told reporters last week during a tour of health facilities in Liberia and Sierra Leone, the worst-affected nations, "The number of cases is spiraling upward ... More cases are leading to less adequate management of each case, which is leading to more cases. That cycle has got to be broken for us to stop this ... There's an urgent need to get patients into isolation and start to get better control of the disease."
The obstacles are daunting. There are not enough isolation wards to meet the current demand, which is expected to rise sharply. The disease has killed doctors and health workers, scared other health workers into quitting, and caused some hospitals to close.
The spillover effects mean that patients with other conditions requiring hospitalization often stay away for fear of contracting Ebola.
The entire pubic health systems of Liberia and Sierra Leone have broken down. (There also are a significant number of related cases in neighboring Nigeria and Guinea, and a new outbreak from a different origin in the Democratic Republic of Congo.)
The World Health Organization predicts that West Africa may eventually see as many as 20,000 cases of the disease, up from the current documented number of 3,000 Ebola patients, about half of whom have died.
But given the chaotic situation in West African health systems and the inability of governments to isolate and quarantine affected neighborhoods, even that number may be too low.
The affected nations do not have the doctors, nurses, modern medical equipment or training to cope.
The WHO estimates that providing the trained staff, equipment and facilities needed to bring the Ebola epidemic under control over the next year with help from more advanced medical systems will cost about $500 million, which must be raised from wealthy countries.
That's a pittance as international aid programs go. Congress should make sure the plan is adequate and give it strong backing.
According to Dr. Frieden, "This is a threat not just to West Africa and to Africa, this is a threat to the world," because the uncontrolled spread of Ebola in Africa "increases the risk of spread to other countries."
That risk demands a global response to Ebola. The remarkable cure at Atlanta's Emory University Hospital of two physicians stricken in Africa while treating Ebola patients provided heartening proof that the disease isn't necessarily a death sentence.
It also suggests that the U.S. is best prepared to assist a medical response to the mounting crisis in Africa.
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