Texas cases prompt congressional hearing on Ebola: Too little, too late?

Ebola virus virion (Photo Credit: Cynthia Goldsmith via CDC)

The Ebola virus has suddenly become a policy priority in the U.S. after the death of the first patient diagnosed with the virus in-country. Two nurses who provided care have also fallen ill. One of the nurses even called the Center for Disease Control to ask if if was safe for her to fly, despite the fact that she had a slight fever. They told her it was. Now, the CDC accepts that was a mistake and the possibility that the virus may have spread during the nurses travel have heightened the public fear about an outbreak in the U.S.

With the World Health Organization announcing this week that Ebola virus cases in Africa could reach 10,000 a week in just two months, the U.S. government has announced additional measures to its plan to combat the deadly disease both domestically and in West Africa. Critics say the reaction is too little, too late. Ashley Westerman has more from Washington, D.C.

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This week the U.S. government earmarked $142 million more to combat Ebola in West Africa, adding to the $400 million pledged already. The funding increase is the latest effort made by the U.S. government to try and contain the disease that’s already killed over 4,000 people. That’s according to the World Health Organization, which has also reported almost 9,000 cases of the virus have been confirmed since the outbreak began six months ago.

The Ebola virus was the focus of a hearing Thursday of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee. Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado said the best way to curb the spread of Ebola is to stop it in Africa: “CDC predicts that up to 1.4 million West Africans could be affected by Ebola. Many more will die from treatable illness due to the collapse of these country’s public health infrastructure. This is a humanitarian crisis, and we have a moral imperative to help in West Africa.”

Top U.S. health officials agree. “One of the things I fear about Ebola is that it could spread more widely in Africa,” said Tom Frieden, Director of the Centers for Disease Control, in Thursday’s hearing. “If this were to happen it could become a threat to our health system and the health care we give for a long time to come.”

Last month, the Department of Defense said it is prepared to devote more than $1 billion on the response effort and also has also sent around 600 troops to affected countries in West Africa, with the stated goal of training health care workers and building treatment facilities.

But the government isn’t the only one sending money, personnel and training resources from the U.S. to Africa, many aid groups and non-profits have also been involved in the effort to combat Ebola.

Catholic Relief Services, a non-profit based in Baltimore, Maryland, has staff in all three of the seriously Ebola-affected countries — Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea — working within communities to get the word out about Ebola transmission and prevention.

Suzanne Van Hull, the group’s senior technical adviser for Malaria, says seeking treatment for early warning symptoms is key so that “if anybody has any kind of symptoms, not necessarily before the fever hits, but if they’re feeling a little bit sick, sore throat or they’re feeling perhaps aches in their muscles that they directly call up the number.”

Van Hull also echoes a frequent criticism that the international community should have done more in to contain the outbreak in its early stages rather than react after it had reached epidemic proportions. “I don’t think it’s the best use of our time. I think now we need to go forward and really invest in putting the maximum amount of efforts, in terms of appropriating the amount of funds.”

Numbers from the United Nations say the international community has either contributed or pledged over all $818 million in aid fight Ebola. The U.S. has contributed the most. However, the UN has estimated it would take almost $1 billion over the next six months to mount a resistance to Ebola in West Africa.

Speaking at forum held at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, earlier this week, Joshua Michaud, associate director of global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said the epidemic is teaching the international community some important lessons about governance and financial response to infectious disease outbreaks. “The theme that has been emerging over the past several months in relation to Ebola is that the international community has done too little, too late and has been poorly coordinated as it’s approached this.”

Michaud said even though the International Health Regulations were just revamped in 2005 to bolster the development of public health capacities in countries around the world, the ball has been dropped. He said there is no substitute for making sure every country has the capacity to detect and respond to emerging infectious diseases, adding that “any country without that capacity becomes a weak link for its neighbors and perhaps even for the entire globe. And finally, under funding global institutions lead to underwhelming results in a time of need.”

Additionally, government funding for scientific institutes has also come under fire. Last week, National Institute of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins told the Huffington Post that they have been working an Ebola vaccine since 2001 and “we probably would have had a vaccine in time for this” if spending for all research items hadn’t stagnated over the last decade.

In the coming weeks U.S. officials say they plan to, among other things, scale up troop presence in West Africa and establish a training program in the U.S. For licensed health care professionals who want to work in West Africa. While many members of Congress are calling for a temporary travel ban from the affected African countries, that idea has yet to gain much traction with officials.

While a vast majority of Ebola cases have been confirmed in Africa. The man with the first confirmed case of Ebola diagnosed in the U.S. died earlier this week in Dallas, Texas. Two health care workers who treated the man have since been diagnosed with the disease. One has been moved to Emory University in Atlanta, while the other is scheduled to be transferred Thursday night to the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

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