Health officials from dozens of countries gathered Friday at the White House, seeking ways to strengthen international defenses against epidemics such as the Ebola outbreak raging in West Africa.
The Obama administration launched a global health security initiative in February to help other nations develop basic disease-detection and monitoring systems to contain and combat the spread of deadly illnesses. That push to develop a long-term strategy gained urgency in the wake of the Ebola epidemic.
“Now, the good news is today our nations have begun to answer the call,” President Obama told the Friday gathering. “With all the knowledge, all the medical talent, all the advanced technologies at our disposal, it is unacceptable if, because of lack of preparedness and planning and global coordination, people are dying when they don’t have to. So, we have to do better , especially when we know that outbreaks are going to keep happening.”
The president also issued a challenge to all entrepreneurs and manufacturers to design better health protective gear that can be sent to contain the spread of the virus in West Africa.
“If you design them, we will make them. We will pay for them,” he said. “And our goal is to get them to the field in a matter of months to help the people working in West Africa right now. I’m confident we can do this.”
Before Obama addressed the gathering, top medical officials spoke in unusually frank terms about the missteps in the response to the spread of the virus in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
“We know that if global health security had been implemented in West Africa . . . the world would be a completely different place today,” said Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He said Ebola represented a critical test, and, “We, the world, failed that test.”
Obama said the outbreak illustrated the urgency of the task ahead. “This epidemic underscores — vividly and tragically — what we already knew, which is, in a world as interconnected as ours, outbreaks anywhere, even in the most remote villages and the remote corners of the world, have the potential to impact everybody, every nation.”
Kenya’s health minister, James Macharia, whose country is working with Denmark to establish an agency focused on bioterrorism and biosecurity, said conflicts both inside and outside his nation pose a challenge.
“We are surrounded by countries with internal problems, internal strife,” he said. “We have to be extremely vigilant when dealing with these matters.”
Secretary of State John F. Kerry said the United States and other nations need to “help countries in West Africa beat back the epidemic, which we can do if we respond properly, but we also need to look ahead and think about what this means . . . and think about the long-term imperatives.”
National security adviser Susan Rice noted at the opening of what was formally called the Global Health Security Agenda Conference that when the World Health Organization gave its members a June 2012 deadline to adopt its universally recognized international health regulations, 80 percent of countries either failed to implement them or did not report back on their progress. “That’s dangerous, and that’s what we’re here to help change,” she said.
One speaker struck an especially optimistic note: Melvin Korkor is a Liberian doctor who contracted Ebola while working alongside an infected nurse. He was given a one-in-10 chance of survival. Kokor quarantined himself, forced himself to eat and took solace in prayer. “I said to myself I was going to make it,” Korkor has said.
Obama told Korkor that his experience reminds the world that “even now, in the face of unimaginable suffering, there’s still hope.
“So, Melvin, your story reminds us that this virus can be beaten, because there are strong people, determined people in these countries who are prepared to do what it takes to save their friends and countrymen and families,” the president said. “But they need a little help.”