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The world is ‘losing the battle’ to contain Ebola, health official warns

September 2, 2014 at 6:25 PM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Public health officials sounded the alarm today about the growing Ebola outbreak in West Africa, saying it could destabilize countries there, and warned the window is closing to keep it from spreading to other regions.

Jeffrey Brown has our coverage.

DR. JOANNE LIU, International President, Doctors Without Borders: Six months into the worst Ebola epidemic in history, the world is losing the battle to contain it.

JEFFREY BROWN: That stark warning today from the international head of Doctors Without Borders.

At the United Nations, Joanne Liu charged that many of the efforts to curtail the outbreak have actually made it worse.

DR. JOANNE LIU: Such as laws criminalizing the failure to report suspected cases, forced quarantines are driving people underground. This is leading to the concealment of cases and is pushing the sick away from health systems. These measures have only served to breed fear and unrest, rather than contain the virus.

JEFFREY BROWN: Doctors Without Borders is calling for another 800 beds just in the Liberian capital, Monrovia.

But, today, health care workers at Monrovia’s main hospital walked off the job, striking, they said, over unpaid wages. And a missionary group, SIM USA, reported that another of its American doctors in Monrovia has tested positive for the virus.

So far, there have been well over 3,000 cases, and more than 1,500 deaths, primarily in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. But the outbreak has spread to Nigeria and Senegal as well. And, as of today, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, an unrelated outbreak of Ebola has killed 31 people.

Meanwhile, another danger now looms, food shortages. U.N. officials said 1.3 million people in West Africa may need food assistance in the coming months, as quarantines cut farmers off from their fields and suspensions of air traffic curtails imports.

Back at today’s U.N. briefing, the head of the World Health Organization, Dr. Margaret Chan, painted a bleak picture of the immediate future.

DR. MARGARET CHAN, Director-General, World Health Organization: The outbreak will get worse before it gets better. And it requires a well- coordinated big surge and huge scale-up of outbreak response urgently. And it requires creativity and culturally appropriate actions.

JEFFREY BROWN: The difficulty of figuring out how to contain the outbreak was captured on video in a chaotic scene in Monrovia yesterday. It involved a man who fled from a hospital’s quarantine center. The hospital was so crowded last month, it had to turn away Ebola patients.

Jonathan Miller of Independent Television News fills in the picture.

JONATHAN MILLER: The man in the red shirt has Ebola and he’s just escaped from a quarantine center. A Liberian doctor tries to remonstrate, but the patient is hungry; he’s looking for food.

The Ebola cops arrive in protective suits. Fear of infection is spreading even faster than the virulent virus itself in this, West Africa’s hardest-hit country. Panic has now gripped the Monrovia market.

WOMAN (through interpreter): The patients are hungry. They are starving. No food. No water. The government needs to do more.

MAN (through interpreter): We told the government from the beginning, we do not want an Ebola camp here. Today makes it the fifth Ebola patient coming outside vomiting and defecating.

JONATHAN MILLER: A doctor from Medecins Sans Frontieres tries to hold back the crowd, then seeks to convince the sick man to get into an ambulance, but he’s having none of it.

A catastrophe is unfolding in West Africa, a transnational crisis born of poverty and highly infectious disease in a deeply impoverished country. The man in the red shirt finally manhandled into the back of a pickup. This region is reeling in terror of contagion.

JEFFREY BROWN: The director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control just returned from surveying the situation in West Africa. And in a press conference this afternoon, he too added strong words and warnings.