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WHO Head: Ebola ‘Greatest Peacetime Challenge’ in U.N. History

With the Islamic State on the march and Ukraine in an undeclared war with Russia, next week’s United Nations General Assembly already has a full plate of thorny challenges to address. But top U.N. officials are desperately trying to bring attention to another: the escalating Ebola epidemic in West Africa, which they say is rapidly ...

Andrew Burton
Andrew Burton

With the Islamic State on the march and Ukraine in an undeclared war with Russia, next week’s United Nations General Assembly already has a full plate of thorny challenges to address. But top U.N. officials are desperately trying to bring attention to another: the escalating Ebola epidemic in West Africa, which they say is rapidly outpacing the international efforts to contain it.

The gloomy forecast comes as the United States presses U.N. member-state governments to rapidly scale up efforts to combat a virus that has infected at least 5,500 people and killed at least 2,500 in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria, and Senegal. Those countries are suffering from a severe shortage of medical staff, because many have died from Ebola, and that and a shortage of beds have forced hospitals and clinics to turn people away. The breakdown of the medical system is leaving infected people seeking care to return to their homes, where they infect others.

Acting on the initiative of the Obama administration, the 15-nation U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution this week declaring the Ebola virus a threat to international peace and security, and urging the U.N.’s member states to rally financial, political, and medical support to contain the plague. The resolution was co-sponsored by 131 countries, the largest official show of international support for a Security Council resolution in history, according to the United States.  

"This is likely the greatest peacetime challenge that the United Nations and its agencies have ever faced," Margaret Chan, the director-general of the World Health Organization, warned the council this week. "None of us experienced in containing outbreaks has ever seen, in our lifetimes, an emergency on this scale, with the degree of suffering, and with this magnitude of cascading consequences."

Chan said that the current figures indicating more than 5,500 infections "are vast underestimates." Chan and other U.N. officials said the virus has devastated the health systems of the hardest-hit countries, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. She noted that the World Bank has warned of a "potentially catastrophic blow" to those economies.

Speaking at an emergency meeting of the council, David Nabarro, the senior U.N. system coordinator for Ebola, said the "outbreak is advancing in an exponential fashion" with the number of infections doubling every three weeks. "The longer it does that the harder it is to get it under control," he added. "I estimate that to get ahead of the outbreak the level of response needs to be about 20 times greater than it is at the moment."

U.S. and U.N. officials said that they haven’t given up hope of containing the virus. Nabarro said that a "massive scale-up" in the "coming weeks" could "achieve the rapid ending of the outbreak." President Barack Obama has ordered the deployment of some 3,000 U.S. forces in Liberia to serve as an "air bridge" to transport doctors, nurses, medical supplies, and clinics into the hardest-hit areas. In all, the United States has committed more than $175 million to the effort, a figure U.S. officials said could rise. 

Nabarro and Chan both praised the United States and United Kingdom for a massive infusion of assistance. They also singled out contributions from Cuba and China, which have sent doctors and other supplies. But they said that far more needs to be done.

Thursday’s Security Council meeting marked only the second time that the U.N.’s chief security body has declared a public health crisis a threat to international peace and security. In January 2000, the late Richard C. Holbrooke organized a U.N. Security Council session, hosted by then-Vice President Al Gore, to tackle the AIDS/HIV crisis.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Liberia and the Ghanaian government have established their own "air bridge" to "facilitate the influx of key health responders and equipment. But, Ban said, "Despite these wide-ranging efforts, the spread of the disease is outpacing the response."

Ban appealed to major airlines and shipping companies to resume service to the hardest-hit countries, noting that "isolation only hampers international efforts to reach people in need." Several airlines, including British Airways and Air France, have suspended flights to Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Medical aid agencies welcomed the council’s new focus on the virus, but they faulted the U.N., the United States, and other governments for not responding rapidly enough to the crisis after Ebola struck its first victims in March.

"The delayed response of governments that have the ability to support countries in West Africa has already led to the loss of far too many lives," said Widney Brown, director of programs for Physicians for Human Rights. "The U.N. Security Council’s special session should be a wake-up call for all countries to provide life-saving support, and do so immediately."

"Speed is of the essence," the medical aid group Doctors Without Border said in a statement. "Although dangerously late, ambitious pledges such as those by the U.S. and the U.K. must be implemented now. We do not have months or even weeks to wait. Thousands of lives are at stake."

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

Tag: Africa

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