Amid a host of global crises, next week’s Africa Summit, a White House effort to encourage business initiatives in Africa and foster security cooperation with the continent, has not garnered much hype in the leadup. But the ebola outbreak in West Africa changed that on Friday, when President Barack Obama discussed it in a wide-ranging press conference after two Americans contracted the disease.
The State Department evacuated the two U.S. aid workers from Liberia on Friday to the United States for treatment. They are being ferried by a specially modified Gulfstream jet that has a plastic tent separating crew and passengers to contain the virus. They will be taken to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, which is also home to the Centers for Disease Control.
Earlier this week, Sierra Leone declared a state of emergency and deployed its military to quarantine the worst hot zones. The World Health Organization pledged $100 million to fight the outbreak and are sending experts to West Africa; the CDC is deploying personnel to help combat the outbreak that has claimed the lives of more than 700 people.
Experts have traced the outbreak to the death of a 2-year-old child in Guinea last December. The disease then spread through the family, killing the victim’s sister, mother, and grandmother. Next, a nurse in the village was struck, then a midwife. From there, the disease has burned a trail through Guinea and across its porous borders into Sierra Leone and Liberia. The region’s widespread poverty and its dearth of modern medical facilities have made quarantining the disease difficult. Regardless, the international and local response has been widely criticized as lacking urgency. With the burst of activity this week, the WHO and governments in the region are trying to catch up to what has become to worst ebola outbreak in history.
Against that background, the leaders of Africa convene in Washington next week for a summit that has itself been widely criticized as lacking a clear agenda and personal attention from Obama. However, the outbreak reportedly will not be a major topic of discussion. According to Ned Price, a spokesman for the National Security Council, there are no plans to alter the summit’s agenda in response to the outbreak. "Global health issues already feature prominently on the agenda, and surely there will be natural opportunities for the assembled leaders to discuss the current outbreak," Price stated in an email to Foreign Policy.
The meeting’s public agenda features one session devoted to health issues. On Monday, African officials and their U.S. counterparts will discuss "Investing in Health: Investing in Africa’s Future. This discussion will highlight the decades-long U.S.-African health partnership that has saved and improved millions of lives," the summit agenda states. "It will also be an opportunity for U.S. and African leaders to agree on how we can further advance our shared health and development goals through our strong partnerships."
During his press conference, Obama emphasized that the United States is taking the outbreak seriously and will screen any summit attendees suspected of being infected with the disease. The CDC has procedures in place for airlines to report passengers exhibiting symptoms and to quarantine them upon their arrival as well.
Some think that, as a precaution, the summit should be canceled. However, the likelihood of ebola making it to the United States and causing an outbreak is exceedingly slim. The disease — among the world’s most deadly — is actually difficult to contract. It can only be transmitted by coming into contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids. A main transmission vector comes from handling victims’ corpses. Anyone travelling to Washington for the summit is unlikely to have been directly involved in containing the outbreak.