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Why Ebola is outpacing health efforts on the ground

Despite increased pledges of support for the Ebola epidemic, Nancy Aossey of International Medical Corps says there are still not enough operational efforts on the ground. Gwen Ifill talks to Aossey, CEO of one of the few nongovernmental groups treating patients in West Africa, about the current treatment resources available for patients and training efforts and equipment for health workers.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Despite new pledges of aid, international leaders provided downbeat assessments of the current battle against Ebola. The head of the World Bank said the international community — community had — quote — "failed miserably" in its initial response. The director of the CDC said the situation reminded him of the early days of the AIDS epidemic.

    We get our own assessment from one of the few nongovernmental groups treating patients in West Africa.

    International Medical Corps has built a treatment clinic in Liberia and is constructing other facilities in both Liberia and Sierra Leone.

    Its president and CEO, Nancy Aossey, joins me now.

    Thank you for joining us.

  • NANCY AOSSEY, International Medical Corps:

    Thank you, Gwen.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    How many bed, how many facilities, how many people would you say that you're engaged in treating now?

  • NANCY AOSSEY:

    OK.

    So, in Liberia, International Medical Corps opened up a 70-bed hospital — or actually we call it a treatment unit. We opened that up in mid-September. We are scaling up and we will be opening up another treatment unit in Sierra Leone.

    In Liberia, we have about 200 people working in this treatment unit, trying to contain it, as well as treating people who have Ebola, with the hopes that they will recover, and they are recovering when they receive treatment.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Do you have any sense that the progress of this disease is being — is slowing?

  • NANCY AOSSEY:

    Well, let me say that it's clear that efforts, like ours and other organizations', are working. When there are treatment efforts, when there are health care workers to treat patients as they come in — I mean, our first patients that arrived to our treatment unit, they died at the doorstep.

    But now we see that patients are recovering, and they're returning back to their families. So any efforts around treatment and containment are working. The problem and the challenge is that there are just not enough operational efforts on the ground. That's the challenge.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Is that because a lack of international action or nongovernmental action, or is it because the infrastructure in these communities is so difficult that even if you sent them 10 collapsible hospitals, pop-up hospitals, they couldn't build them?

  • NANCY AOSSEY:

    OK.

    Well, it's a number of factors. One, certainly, the health care infrastructures are very weak in West Africa, under-resourced. They don't have enough health workers. That's one thing. The second thing is the spread wasn't contained more quickly some months ago.

    International donors are stepping up. In fact, our treatment unit in Liberia was made possible from a grant from USAID's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. It took $5 million to open that up and about a million a month.

    So, part of it is the resources need to be there, but also people are really afraid. They're afraid to provide treatment because they also need to keep their own health workers safe. And so one of the things that we have done is we have said to other community health people as well as other international NGOs, we will provide case management protocol training.

    We will train their workers so that they can open up more treatment facilities. The problem we have now is that the disease and the outbreak is being — is outpacing the operational efforts on ground. There are a lot of plans in place, by the way, to change that, and we're still within that window.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Right.

    Well, this part about how you keep health workers safe is something that was raised in a piece we had on the "NewsHour" last night about CDC workers preparing to go abroad. It takes 20 minutes to get into one of those suits, as long to get out of the suits and it's possibly more difficult.

    Are you suffering at all from lack of willingness of volunteers to take all that on?

  • NANCY AOSSEY:

    Oh, yes, great question.

    So, the suits, it's very complicated. We have — you can only stay them in about two hours in Africa. It's that hot. We have a buddy system, because people make mistakes. And so we have someone watching the other health worker so that they don't infect themselves through a basic mistake.

    But what we are finding is that when proper — when people are properly equipped and they have the proper protocols in place, they can successfully treat patients and it can be contained. But that training, that knowledge is very important. And so what we have done is, we have said, you know, when organizations come to, say, Liberia, we will provide seven to 10 days of training, and as well the U.S. military is putting together a 25-bed hospital in Liberia specifically to take care of health workers, because one of the challenges around — you know, they call it the nurse killer in Liberia.

    One of the challenges around Ebola is that health workers are willing to step forward and help, and they're very heroic, but our recruitment efforts are helped greatly by the fact that we can treat them if they catch Ebola.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    An organization like yours, International Medical Corps, Ebola is not your only goal.

  • NANCY AOSSEY:

    Right.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    You also are working in places like the Central African Republic or in Syria among refugees. How do you stop resources from being stretched too thin to handle all of these crises at one time?

  • NANCY AOSSEY:

    Right. Well, we're in unprecedented times. We have six category three emergencies.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Six?

  • NANCY AOSSEY:

    That is the highest emergency.

    Never in our history have we had that. I mean, one of the toughest years would have been two a year. And we have six in — we have six now in the last six months alone. So, you know, it's all hands on deck. We're hopeful that supporters, both government agencies and private sector — the private sector is starting to step into the Ebola fight, the refugee crises.

    They're an important part of these efforts. But the fact is, it's like we have to do it on all fronts, frankly. It's impossible to pick among these because they're all at the highest level they can be.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    There are some places where they have been able to stop the spread and some places where they haven't. We heard the head of the World Bank today say that there is — nothing less than the future of Africa is at stake right now.

  • NANCY AOSSEY:

    Yes.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Do you see that?

  • NANCY AOSSEY:

    This can be stopped and it can be contained, but it has to be. It absolutely has to be stopped, because the fact of the matter is, we have — here we have two countries, Sierra Leone and Liberia, who are coming back from the brink of civil war.

    I mean, they have done so much to come back from where they were, and for them to be now dealing with Ebola on top of it, this — this crisis is a global crisis. It's a world problem. It's not just West Africa. We are all in it together. And we have to take the view that it is everyone's problem, and whatever resources it takes, we have to be there, because it's going to continue to spread if we're not there.

    And it has to be stopped and contained at the source.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Nancy Aossey, president and CEO of the International Medical Corps, thank you very much.

  • NANCY AOSSEY:

    Thank you, Gwen. Thanks.

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