Taking the fight to Ebola

Doctors treat a patient at the Samaritan's Purse Ebola Case Management Center in Monrovia, Liberia. (AP Photo/Samaritan's Purse)

The bad news is that it is going to take a massive and costly intervention by nations with good public health programs to stop deadly Ebola fever in West Africa and prevent its spread. The good news is that the effort is under way, albeit in very challenging circumstances.

It is now nearly five months since the first cases of the gruesome hemorrhagic fever were identified in the West African nation Guinea. Since then the usually fatal disease has spread to Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria, countries home to almost 200 million people.

More than 900 people have died, and the toll is predicted to get worse before the disease is brought under control. That won't happen any time soon, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Public health controls in the affected areas are totally inadequate to the task of preventing the spread of the disease.

Ebola spreads through contact with bodily fluids. The incubation period is three weeks. Anyone in contact with an infected person should be quarantined during those 21 days. Reports from Africa say this rule is regularly ignored, leading to a geometric increase in exposures.

Six weeks ago the medical charity Doctors Without Borders reported that Ebola was "out of control" in West Africa, a judgment echoed Sunday by the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr. Thomas Frieden. Last weekend WHO Director Margaret Chan, while announcing a $100 million effort to bolster medical staff in the affected areas, said the disease is "moving faster than our efforts to control it."

As part of the international effort, the Centers for Disease Control is sending 50 specialists to the affected areas. It's a high-risk mission. For example, one airline passenger, an American-Liberian traveling to Nigeria, reportedly infected six hospital workers in Lagos before it was determined that he had Ebola. One nurse has died.

The Wall Street Journal reports that a "sizeable" number of the current victims of Ebola are health workers, working extremely long days, in dangerous conditions, in rundown hospitals.

Michael Stulman, information officer for Catholic Relief Services, told the Journal the stress of coping with so many Ebola patients in dire condition raises the rate of mistakes.

Presumably, the first mission of CDC staff going to Africa will be to review the safety procedures of hospitals and health care workers. More difficult will be the job of educating Africans whose family members have succumbed to Ebola - too often attributed to witchcraft there - to observe the quarantine rules.

But there's no cause for American panic. The CDC has trained personnel at 20 international airports and border stations in the U.S., trying to spot typical symptoms of infectious diseases and isolate those suffering from them.

So the experts are on the Ebola case in Africa and beyond.

And stopping this disease at its source remains the best way to reduce its death toll.