‘Only weeks left’ to avert Ebola catastrophe

Liberian health workers at Ebola treatment center in Monrovia, Liberia. Picture: Getty
Liberian health workers at Ebola treatment center in Monrovia, Liberia. Picture: Getty
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MORE troops, funding and medical staff are urgently needed to prevent the Ebola outbreak becoming the “definitive humanitarian disaster of our generation”, Oxfam warned yesterday.

The UK-based charity said that there was less than a two-month window to curb the spread of the deadly virus, but there remained a “crippling shortfall” in military personnel to provide logistical support across West Africa.

More than 4,500 people have died from the disease, mainly in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Yesterday the United Nations announced that it has started training Ebola survivors to help respond to the soaring number of cases in West Africa, because people who have lived through the experience are now immune to the disease.

Sarah Crowe of Unicef said the organisation is training the survivors to work with children in Liberia and Sierra Leone who have had contact with infected people, often family members, and require 21 days of isolation.

“Ebola has hijacked every asp­ect of life” in these hardest-hit countries, Crowe said, and it has left an estimated 3,700 orphans across the region.

Ebola has turned large parts of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea into a no-touch culture, which has been especially hard on children.

The first of the government-run Interim Care Centres featuring survivors as caregivers opened last week in the outskirts of Liberia’s capital, Monrovia. At least one centre is expected to open within a month in each of Liberia’s five most affected counties. Each centre will be equipped to care for 30 children.

Oxfam said yesterday that while Britain was leading the way in Europe’s response to the epidemic, countries which have failed to commit troops – including Italy and Spain – were “in danger of costing lives”.

The charity said it was “extremely rare” to call for military intervention, but troops were “desperately needed” to build treatment centres, provide flights and offer engineering and logistical support.

More doctors and nurses were required to staff the treatment centres and there was a “significant shortfall” in funding to support the emergency humanitarian response, the agency warned.

The Oxford-based charity has called for European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels tomorrow to follow the UK’s lead in responding to the Ebola crisis after the country committed £125 million – the second highest sum after the United States.

It comes after David Cameron called for fellow EU leaders to double their contribution to the fight to tackle the virus, demanding a combined ¤1 billion (£800m) pledge.

Mark Goldring, Oxfam’s chief executive said: “We are in the eye of a storm. We cannot allow Ebola to immobilise us in fear, but instead we must move toward a common mission to stop it from getting worse.”

The US and the UK have committed 4,000 and 750 troops respectively to help tackle Ebola, Oxfam said. But the charity warned only some of these troops are on the ground, with most of the US contingent due by 1 November.

Italy, Australia and Spain have committed no troops, despite Spain having a specialist medical expertise unit in its military, Oxfam said.

Germany has committed to military supply flights and plans a military hospital in the region, while France has some military staff in Guinea, where personnel are reportedly building a hospital, it added.

A spokeswoman for Oxfam said it understands the “tremen­dous logistical challenges” but urged military groups to look at how their mobilisation can be “massively strengthened and sped up”.

When a fund was set up by the UN secretary-general to fight Ebola in September, it was estimated almost £620m was needed for the next six months.

To date, only half of this amount has been set aside, Oxfam said. The charity has now app­ealed for £22m to triple its emergency response in Liberia and Sierra Leone, but said it was “nowhere near this target yet”.

The number of Ebola cases is doubling about every 20 days, Oxfam said.

The World Health Organisation has put the death rate from this outbreak at 70 per cent and has warned that there could be 10,000 new cases a week in West Africa by December.