THE BLOG
10/07/2014 03:50 pm ET Updated Dec 07, 2014

The Ebola Outbreak: Good Medicine Against Public Panic

In Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, where the health systems are rudimentary, panic is an understandable reaction to the march of the killer virus Ebola. In the United States, where we have one of the best health systems in the Western world, people should not be afraid.

But the toll Ebola can wreak in a nation with poor clinical care does point to the vital effort that Project HOPE and other NGOs make, often without much publicity, to build medical systems and health care infrastructure in the developing world.

I have watched with some concern as news shows focused on the unfortunate case of the man who became gravely ill with Ebola in Dallas after returning from a trip to West Africa.

While it is appropriate for politicians and journalists to probe government preparations to stop the Ebola epidemic reaching our shores, it is important to keep a sense of perspective and to avoid inflating the fears of the public.

As a former senior health administrator in Texas, and now as the leader of a major international medical NGO, I know from experience that in the United States and other developed nations, we have the tools, experience and procedures that can halt any Ebola outbreak in its tracks.

It also vital for the top medical and health officials in the government, and those of us in the wider medical community with expertise in this area, to say publicly that there is a minute risk of an Ebola epidemic in the United States. We must say it over and over again to counter attempts to hype the threat, until the public is reassured.

As Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), said at the White House last week, it is understandable that Ebola creates "a lot of fear."

"It's the unknown; it's the cataclysmic nature of it -- mainly, it's acute," he said. "It kills at a high percentage, and it kills quickly."

Understanding that sense of fear is the first step to reassuring the public that the risks of a large-scale outbreak in the United States are minimal. Just as a reminder: The disease can also only be passed on through the sharing of bodily fluids.

It is not only because we have so much trust in our 21st century health system that we are confident we can combat Ebola. We have seen in Nigeria, for instance, how comprehensive public health plans can turn the tide.

The government in Abuja will soon mark the passage of the second of two 21-day incubation periods -- after which they will be able to declare the Ebola outbreak in the country over.

While the deaths of eight people among 20 confirmed cases of Ebola in Nigeria is tragic, we can take comfort in the fact that a functioning public health system, swift isolation and command-and-control measures halted the Ebola outbreak.

Unfortunately, some other people in West Africa are not so fortunate -- and that is why quickening the response to the Ebola epidemic is important. The United States is taking a much-needed leadership role by deploying 4,000 troops to the region to build a command center and emergency health care infrastructure.

The plan is to control the epidemic at its source, to stop its further spread, to marshal international efforts and to finally put into place much more capable health care systems that could slow or prevent future epidemics of this kind and save thousands of lives.

NGOs like Project HOPE plan to be in this for some time to come -- with the commitment to the long-term which has marked all of our programs around the world.

At the request of the government of Sierra Leone, we have sent a team that includes two infectious disease experts from the global pharmaceutical company Merck and Co., Inc., known as MSD outside the U.S. and Canada. We have also sent a volunteer registered infection control nurse from Massachusetts General Hospital and experts in disaster response and humanitarian assistance.

The team is conducting a rapid assessment on the ground by communicating with key health and emergency response officials in addition to surveying major health facilities, logistics capabilities and lines of communication. This will allow the team to identify key gaps in the country's ability to combat the Ebola outbreak, effectively treat patients and operate their overall health system.

The experts are identifying areas to strengthen Sierra Leone's health system by equipping isolation treatment areas, emergency management and operations centers, education and training, and more. We can stop the Ebola outbreak, and with it, the tremendous sense of fear.