The Guardian

By Shalailah Medhora

Developed countries were not properly prepared for the outbreak of ebola in west Africa, the American agency leading the fight against the deadly disease has said.

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said the impact of the epidemic would have been reduced if the west had invested in vulnerable countries.

“Responding to a flood by building a dam as the waters are floating past you really just doesn’t work,” said a CDC “disease detective”, Dr Leisha Nolen. “You need to make the dam before the rain starts.”

The US president, Barack Obama, visited the CDC last week, where he pledged military and medical support in the fight to contain the outbreak, which has claimed more than 2,400 lives since March.

“This is a global threat, and it demands a truly global response,” Obama said.

The Australian government has pledged $8m. But that amount was pilloried last week by the aid organisation Médecins Sans Frontières Australia (MSF) for failing to provide the material support it says is needed to contain the disease.

The federal government had offered MSF $2.5m to continue its work in Sierra Leone.

“This money would be better spent providing capacity that Medecins Sans Frontieres and other NGOs cannot,” its executive director, Paul McPhun, said.

“What is needed is a massive increase in personnel, equipment and logistical support.”

The CDC admits it was unprepared for the current epidemic.

“We were quite shocked or astounded … to see that this was indeed ebola,” a health communications expert, Craig Manning, said.

The CDC initially mistook the first cases of the outbreak for another virus which has similar symptoms.

“When we first heard about this unidentified disease in Guinea, the hypothesis was that it would likely turn out to be Lassa fever,” Manning said.

Even once ebola was identified, the Guinean health department acted slowly in containing it because the country was not “attuned” to dealing with the disease, Manning said.

Health care experts are urging developed countries to send personnel to west Africa immediately to halt the rapid progress of the disease.

“What can we do now? It’s resources, it’s people, it’s advisers,” Nolen said.

The need for specialists was particularly urgent in Sierra Leone; it recently exhausted all capacity to treat ebola patients in medical centres.

“This is full to the point where they cannot put any more people in isolation,” Nolen said.

“We estimate that we need at least 1,000 or more beds [in capital Monrovia]. So we’re a long way from getting enough facilities for people,” the director of global health protection at the CDC, Dr Jordan Tappero, said.

The agency wants western countries to focus on areas that have not yet had a major outbreak.

“You’re fighting this fire in three countries, and then you’ve got a little wider ring outside of that where you’ve had introductions, like Nigeria, and the one introduction into Senegal,” a CDC travel health expert, Dr Gary Brunette, said.

“So that wider ring represents more of an opportunity to protect the kind of spread that we’ve seen [in Guinea and Liberia],” he said.

A Nigerian health care expert living in the United States has warned that a major outbreak of ebola in Nigeria would be disastrous for the rest of Africa.

“The problem that we have is that there is not a single system in the country that can handle a large [patient] population. There is none,” said Dr Vincent Ohaju.

Ohaju wants the Nigerian government to negotiate with doctors and nurses to end the months-long strike that has closed several public hospitals.

This article was originally published at The Guardian