Message from the front line: West Africa’s Ebola fight is a failure

Humanitarian group chief says frontline disease fighters desperately need international support

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 August, 2014, 9:54pm
UPDATED : Friday, 08 August, 2014, 9:54pm

In stark, often chilling US congressional testimony, an official with a relief organisation responding to the Ebola crisis in West Africa has labelled efforts to control the virus a failure.

Ken Isaacs, a vice-president with Samaritan's Purse, a Christian humanitarian organisation, also said the number of Ebola cases and deaths reported by the World Health Organisation were probably between 25 per cent and 50 per cent below actual levels.

During testimony before a subcommittee of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Isaacs said volunteers in the affected countries were in dire need of greater international support, including aircraft equipped to transport Ebola patients, more laboratories to speed the processing of blood tests and more security for health workers who faced violence and a lack of cooperation from distrustful villagers.

Isaacs told of a prominent Liberian doctor who "openly mocked the existence of Ebola" by trying to enter a hospital isolation ward with no gloves or protective clothing. He and another man who accompanied him to the hospital both died within five days.

At one point, Isaacs even disputed the earlier testimony of a doctor from the US Agency for International Development, who said his agency had provided 35,000 protective suits for health care workers in West Africa.

Isaacs said that just before testifying he had received an email from a hospital in Liberia "asking us for more personal protection gear". "This a problem everywhere," he said.

Prior to the latest outbreak, Ebola had infected 2,232 people and claimed 1,503 lives in 32 years, Isaacs testified.

"Easily this present outbreak is going to surpass that in fatalities, as well as overall cases," he said. "It is clear to say that the disease is uncontained and it is out of control in West Africa. The international response to the disease has been a failure and it is important to understand that."

Up to Thursday, the WHO reported that the Ebola crisis ravaging Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria had killed 932 people, with 1,711 confirmed and suspected cases.

Ebola can spread only through contact with infected bodily fluids. It cannot be transmitted through airborne particles, but there is no cure or treatment for the virus, which has a death rate of about 60 per cent.