As the Ebola epidemic in West Africa continues to spiral out of control, our hearts go out to the victims of this horrible virus. Our thoughts are also with the beleaguered doctors and nurses confronting hellish conditions as they desperately try to halt the spread of a disease that has already claimed more than 1,200 lives, according to figures just released by the World Health Organization.
The outbreak of the disease, which can kill up to 90 percent of those infected and for which there is no cure or vaccine, is already the deadliest on record. Furthermore, fears continue to mount in poverty-stricken Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, where relief organizations and aid groups are simply overwhelmed by severe food shortages and a limited supply of experimental drugs to combat the epidemic.
Here in the U.S., a sizable amount of our attention has been focused on the American health care officials, including Dr. Kent Brantly from my home state of Indiana, who contracted the Ebola virus while working in Africa. As they receive care from our best medical professionals at Atlanta's Emory Hospital, we can do nothing but admire their bravery and dedication. And we can all be grateful we live in a country with effective health care systems.
Make no mistake, though, Ebola is principally an African problem.
The medical personnel on the ground there are absolutely exhausted. They're working 12- to 14-hour shifts, seven days a week, in an environment where people are not well-informed about the disease and in countries without health-preparedness or response mechanisms in place to meet such a massive public health challenge. They're also facing other obstacles, including uncooperative local communities that refuse to provide adequate health messaging in affected areas and traditional burial practices that put people who touch the dead at risk for contracting the virus.
The countries where this outbreak has caused so much death and fear are extremely weak states with ineffective governments that barely work. They also have uncertain boundaries, and thus cannot be expected to quickly and effectively meet this challenge.
So what can be done? For one, the international community must step up in a way it hasn't yet shown a willingness to do. Indeed, international leadership is badly needed; and though the World Health Organization is the most natural organization to oversee a global action effort, the substantially under-resourced and over-extended outfit is hardly in the position to do so effectively.
This leaves the United States in the unenviable position of having to exert its own leadership within the international community and spearhead a strategic plan to somehow bring this epidemic under control. While our health planning mechanisms are likely to keep Ebola from our shores, we cannot avoid our role in the larger, global fight, as evidenced earlier this month when the White House hosted a U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, the first event of its kind. Indeed, Ebola didn't have a prominent place on the agenda for the summit, but its presence was felt throughout the three days of conversations, which included dozens of leaders from across the African continent.
The summit didn't solve the crisis, but its discussions did offer a solid starting point for a much-needed action plan, which, I would submit, must focus on the following:
- Establishing a strong public health and medical infrastructure that offers maximum support to those stricken with or at risk of contracting the virus and builds resilience to future threats of disease.
- Developing specialized international response teams that are adequately resourced, trained and ready to deal with epidemics.
- Spurring development of promising new experimental drugs and medical treatments, even though it's unlikely we will be able to get them on the market right away to have a large-enough impact.
- Addressing the vast development and investment needs that persist in countries that, despite Africa's rapid economic growth, remain among the world's poorest.
Regarding the issue of economic development, this is the third and most serious outbreak of Ebola that the world has faced; and it suggests the danger that can come from diseases emerging from areas without a strong economic, medical and social infrastructure.
Incidentally, there are other diseases besides Ebola that can very quickly turn into a pandemic if they aren't extinguished early enough. The world's action plan on Ebola must reflect both an awareness that we aren't simply talking about one disease, but rather all possible outbreaks; and that only socially stable, economically sound states can effectively withstand such difficult threats as those occurring in West Africa today.
Lee H. Hamilton is Professor of Practice, Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; Director, Center on Congress at Indiana University. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana's 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999.