Wake up to the threat of Ebola

The international response to the outbreak has been patchy. We owe it to Africa to do much more

Click to follow

Every day – every hour – counts in the international response to the deadliest outbreak of Ebola in human history. It is like “chasing a ball down a hill”, read a joint statement from NGOs delivered at today’s conference in London, which aimed to ramp up support for the severely stricken nation of Sierra Leone.

Though richer countries, such as Nigeria and Senegal, have managed to staunch the spread of the disease, it continues to ravage the parts of West Africa where health infrastructure is weakest. Reported cases are still doubling at a rate of roughly every three weeks, and the US-based Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has presented a worst-case scenario of 1.4 million infections by 20 January in Liberia and Sierra Leone alone.

The measures announced at the Defeating Ebola conference are welcome, as is the UK’s agreement to co-ordinate the international response in Sierra Leone, under the auspices of the UN. But every indication from the ground suggests that commitments so far will not suffice in the battle against this haemorrhagic fever, which has already killed more than 3,000 people by the estimate of the World Health Organisation.

It has taken the arrival in America of an Ebola-infected patient to reignite Western fears about a problem that, competing for attention alongside the rise of Isis, as well as war in Ukraine, has perhaps not received the media coverage it might warrant.

To describe the wider threat to the West as minuscule would be an overstatement. The facilities needed to isolate patients, and the availability of experimental drugs, mean that cases can be treated to the highest possible standards. But quite the reverse holds true in Sierra Leone, where two million people have been placed in quarantine, and there is less than one doctor for every 10,000 people – compared with 123 in the US, and 130 in the UK. Boosting frontline medical facilities and logistical efforts has been recognised as crucial.

The WHO estimates that $1bn is needed if the outbreak is to be controlled (only a third of that has so far been made available), but money is not enough on its own. Médecins Sans Frontières, which has been at the forefront of the international response, has heavily criticised the lack of muscle from developed nations, this week going so far as to reject money from Australia but ask for medical teams instead.

The UK’s response could be improved in this regard. The £125m committed so far to support 700 beds and build hospitals shows leadership. The exceptional bravery of the 400 NHS staff who have volunteered to go to Sierra Leone sets a shining example. But while Barack Obama sent 3,000 troops to West Africa last month, the British military has so far deployed fewer than 100 medical staff, and their role does not apparently stretch far beyond construction.

We should heed the call from Médecins Sans Frontières to ramp up this number – only the second time the organisation has asked for such help – and put the logistical excellence of the Army to work: this would be one intervention for the armed forces that could be viewed in absolutely positive terms. A collapse of order in Sierra Leone, only just recovering from a brutal civil war, would put years of progress – partly funded by British development assistance – at risk.

To stop this pandemic reaching an even worse scale, the “surge” from the international community must be both sustained and increased.n