The number of Ebola cases in West Africa could start doubling every three weeks and it could end up costing nearly $1 billion to contain the crisis, the World Health Organisation warned on Tuesday.
Even as President Barack Obama was expected to announce the deployment of 3,000 American troops to help provide aid in the region, Doctors Without Borders told the UN health agency that the global response to Ebola was falling far short of what is needed.
“The response to Ebola continues to fall dangerously behind,” Joanne Liu, president of the medical charity, told a meeting at the United Nations in Geneva.”The window of opportunity to contain this outbreak is closing. We need more countries to stand up, we need greater deployment, and we need it now.”
In a report released on Tuesday, WHO said some $987.8 million is needed for everything from paying health workers and buying supplies to tracing people who have been exposed to the virus, which is spread by contact with bodily fluids like blood, urine or diarrhea. Some $23.8 million alone is needed to pay burial teams and buy body bags, since the bodies of Ebola victims are highly infectious and workers must wear protection suits.
Nearly 5,000 people have been sickened by Ebola in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Nigeria and Senegal since it was first recognized in March. WHO says it anticipates that figure could rise to more than 20,000. At least 2,400 people have died, with Liberia bearing the brunt of the fatalities.
Recent weeks have seen a flurry of promises of aid.
In addition to the US troops, the UN health agency said China has promised to send a 59-person mobile laboratory team to Sierra Leone that includes lab experts, epidemiologists, doctors and nurses. Britain is also planning to build and operate an Ebola clinic in Sierra Leone, and Cuba has promised to send the country more than 160 health workers.
Still, hospitals and clinics in West Africa are now turning the sick away because they don’t have enough space to treat everyone ” a sure-fire way to increase the spread of the disease, which in this outbreak is killing about half of those it infects.
The United States, in particular, drew criticism last week when it promised to set up a 25-bed field hospital in Liberia that would only serve foreign health workers. Many thought the contribution was discriminatory and paltry, given that experts were saying Liberia needed at least 500 more treatment beds.
President Barack Obama issued a global call to action to fight West Africa’s Ebola epidemic on Tuesday, warning the deadly outbreak was unprecedented and “spiralling out of control,” threatening hundreds of thousands of people.
Speaking as he unveiled a major new US initiative which will see 3,000 US military personnel deployed to West Africa to combat the growing health crisis, Obama said the outbreak was spreading “exponentially.”
“Here’s the hard truth. In West Africa, Ebola is now an epidemic of the likes that we have not seen before,” Obama said.
“It’s spiralling out of control. It is getting worse. It’s spreading faster and exponentially. Today, thousands of people in West Africa are infected. That number could rapidly grow to tens of thousands.
“And if the outbreak is not stopped now, we could be looking at hundreds of thousands of people infected with profound political and economic and security implications for all of us.”
As well as the military deployment, the US will also set up a command and control center in the capital of Liberia, the hardest-hit country, build new treatment centers and train health workers.
Precise timing on deployment was still unclear.
“No deployment in the coming days. The troops have to be properly trained and equipped,” a Pentagon official said privately. Among the US soldiers sent to West Africa will be doctors and also engineers to set up the field hospitals, the official said.
Meanwhile, the United States moved to fund these plans.
Specifically, the Department of Defense plans to ask Wednesday to have reprogrammed “an additional $500mn in Fiscal Year 2014 Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funds to provide urgent humanitarian assistance to fight Ebola,” an administration official said.
This is separate from the funds already put toward the effort, including the $175mn already dedicated, and the $88mn requested through a continuing resolution.
The Ebola epidemic has killed more than 2,400 people in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone this year.
The virus can fell its victims within days, causing severe fever and muscle pain, weakness, vomiting and diarrhoea — in some cases shutting down organs and causing unstoppable bleeding.
No licensed vaccine or treatment exists.
The United Nations Security Council is poised to adopt a resolution on Thursday exhorting countries to provide more field hospitals and urgent aid to the crisis-stricken region.
Likely passage of the resolution marks only the third time that the Security Council will vote on a public health crisis after resolutions on AIDS in 2000 and 2011.
“This has gone beyond health issues,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said.
“It has gone to areas affecting social and economic situations. It may even affect political stability if not properly contained and treated.”
The United Nations said nearly $1bn would be needed to beat back the worst-ever outbreak of the disease, which is on track to infect 20,000 people by the end of the year.
The world body has set a goal of stopping the spread of Ebola within six to nine months but aid agencies are complaining that help has been too slow.
Ban is planning a “high-level event” on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly next week to draw attention to the crisis.