THE VIRUS particles that cause the Ebola and Marburg hemorrhagic fevers are shaped like filaments, straight and sometimes curled, 80 billionths of a meter in diameter. Once they have infected a person, the particles replicate in many human organs, including the liver, spleen, kidney, lungs and lymph nodes, destroying cells and leading to death in more than half the cases.
This cycle is repeating itself relentlessly in the outbreak zone of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. The toll continues to soar in what one expert, Michael Osterholm, has called “virus time,” and it is outpacing the decisions of nations. Last spring, much of the world wasn’t even listening to the cries for help from Doctors Without Borders, which has been at the front lines of fighting the virus in West Africa. Now, the alarms about cases in the United States have reached a crescendo, in waves of panic fueled by hyperactive news and social media. But the actual response on the front lines of the epidemic — in Africa — is lagging in what Mr. Osterholm called “bureaucratic program time.”
Debate in the United States continues to be focused on the wrong question: whether travel to this country from West Africa should be banned. As virtually every credible public health authority has said, it shouldn’t be. Restricting travel will not prevent potential Ebola carriers from reaching this country, only make them more difficult to track. Ron Klain, the veteran political manager appointed by President Obama to oversee the U.S. response, should start by rejecting these politically-motivated and irresponsible demands.
If there is something to panic about, it is the failure to get ahead of the outbreak in Africa. Should the international community not stop Ebola in the epicenter of the outbreak, it could well spread to other vulnerable regions with weak public health infrastructure, and then beyond in a tableau that will dwarf today’s crisis, which has so far killed at least 4,546 people and infected more than 9,100 in the three nations where it began.
On Friday, Christopher Stokes of Doctors Without Borders said Ebola was still out of control in the region, and it was “ridiculous” that volunteers for the charity are still bearing the brunt of care in the worst-affected areas, running about 700 of the 1,000 treatment beds available in the region. The United States, Britain and some other nations, after a slow start, have rallied with funding pledges and are now building more treatment facilities. While encouraging, Mr. Stokes told the BBC that the latest efforts are still “not having any significant impact on the epidemic and it won’t now for maybe another month or month and a half.”
Tolbert Nyenswah, the head of Liberia’s response effort, was quoted by the Wall Street Journal as saying, “Tell the international community that they have failed Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, and they are still failing. They knew our health system did not have the capacity.” In addition to treatment facilities, the region desperately needs doctors and nurses to cope with the epidemic.
The experts are clear: What is required to prevent Ebola from spreading to the United States is quicker and more comprehensive action in Africa. The world needs to meet Ebola on virus time.