UNITED NATIONS — The international group Doctors Without Borders warned Tuesday that the world is losing the battle against Ebola and lamented that treatment centers in West Africa have been “reduced to places where people go to die alone.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on Tuesday warned that the “window of opportunity” to get a handle on the exploding Ebola outbreak is closing. Frieden said the situation is now the world’s first Ebola epidemic, given how widely it’s spreading.
In separate remarks after a United Nations meeting on the crisis, the World Health Organization chief said everyone involved had underestimated the outbreak, which has killed more than 1,500 people in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. U.N. officials implored governments worldwide to send medical workers and material contributions.
The CDC has advised U.S. colleges and universities, and any students or staff arriving from nations hit by the Ebola virus, to take precautions against spreading the disease that go beyond what most schools have done.
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In a new advisory issued over the weekend, the agency recommended that colleges conduct screening for anyone who had been in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria or Sierra Leone in the past 21 days, the maximum incubation period for the virus before symptoms appear. In addition, it advises having people returning from those countries take their temperature twice daily until the 21-day period has passed, even if they’ve had no symptoms and no risk of exposure.
At this time of year, thousands of foreign students and workers, and Americans who have been traveling abroad, arrive on campuses to start a new school year, stirring fears of Ebola’s reaching the United States.
Campus health officers have downplayed the risk, noting that the heavily affected countries send fewer than 400 students each year to U.S. colleges and universities. Nigeria sends more than 7,000, but it has had far fewer Ebola cases.
A test for world
Jan Eliasson, the deputy secretary-general of the United Nations, said at a meeting of the General Assembly on Tuesday that the outbreak was “a test to international solidarity.”
More than 3,500 cases have been confirmed so far in the largest and most complex outbreak since the disease was first identified in 1976. In addition to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, there have been confirmed cases in Nigeria and Senegal.
A separate strain of the virus has been detected farther east, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with 53 cases confirmed there, U.N. officials said.
The virus was apparently carried to Nigeria by an infected traveler who flew to Lagos, the country’s commercial capital, from Liberia. It has since been detected in Port Harcourt, a bustling oil city in the south.
Senegal reported a confirmed case of Ebola after someone carrying the virus traveled by land from neighboring Guinea, slipping through the cracks of a system meant to monitor travelers.
Some airlines have stopped flying in and out of West African capitals. But WHO Director Margaret Chan said a better way to bring the outbreak under control would be to improve screening of passengers at airports, rather than restricting air travel.
Meanwhile, in Liberia, the missionary organization Serving In Mission (SIM) announced that another American doctor has become infected.
Doctors Without Borders, which has treated more than 1,000 Ebola patients in West Africa since March, is completely overwhelmed by the disease, said Joanne Liu, the organization’s president. She called on other countries to contribute civilian and military medical personnel familiar with biological disasters.
“Six months into the worst Ebola epidemic in history, the world is losing the battle to contain it,” Liu said at the U.N. forum on the outbreak. “Ebola treatment centers are reduced to places where people go to die alone, where little more than palliative care is offered.”
In Sierra Leone, she said, infectious bodies are rotting in the streets. Liberia had to build a new crematorium instead of new Ebola care centers.
At the U.N. meeting, Chan thanked countries that have helped but said: “We need more from you. And we also need those countries that have not come on board.”
Things will get worse
Later at a news conference, she warned that the outbreak will get worse before it gets better.
Frieden, just back from a trip to the affected countries, implored governments and organizations worldwide to step up their response to the disease.
“This is not just a problem for West Africa, it’s not just a problem for Africa. It’s a problem for the world, and the world needs to respond,” Frieden said Tuesday afternoon. “Like it or not, we live in an interconnected world.”
Frieden said that during his trip, he witnessed brand-new Ebola wards that didn’t have enough beds and saw patients on the ground.
“There is a window of opportunity to tamp this down, but that window is closing. We need action now,” Frieden said.
The CDC director told CBS early Tuesday that the Ebola outbreak was “spiraling out of control,” adding that he fears the situation will only worsen over the next several weeks. The agency will be sending workers to the region for longer periods of time to help with the fight, Frieden said.
He pleaded for individuals and organizations with specialized skills to consider increasing their response in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
Meanwhile, the missionary group SIM announced Tuesday that a third American aid worker had become ill with Ebola while working at a medical facility jointly run by the organization in Liberia.
The U.S. doctor was treating obstetrics patients at the ELWA hospital in Monrovia, and had not been working in the separate Ebola isolation ward, the group said.
After showing symptoms of Ebola, the doctor, who was not identified, immediately quarantined himself and is being treated in the Ebola ward, the organization said in a statement. He is “doing well and is in good spirits,” SIM said.
Two other Americans working at the same facility, Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, were recently flown out of Liberia and treated for Ebola at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta before being released.
President Obama urged West Africans on Tuesday to wear gloves and masks when caring for Ebola patients or burying victims. He discouraged the burial practice of directly touching the body, one way the disease has been spreading.
U.S. health officials Tuesday announced a $24.9 million, 18-month contract with Mapp Biopharmaceutical to speed development of ZMapp. As part of the project, Mapp is to make a small amount of the drug for early-stage safety testing, while working with the Department of Health and Human Services to speed the manufacturing process.
The outbreak has taken a particularly high toll on health-care workers, and nurses in Liberia and Sierra Leone have repeatedly gone on strike to demand hazard pay and better protective gear. On Monday, nurses at a major hospital in the Liberian capital went on strike, according to spokesman Jerald Dennis III.
Meanwhile, the Sierra Leone government said nurses were back at work Tuesday after a strike at a Freetown hospital this weekend.
Also Tuesday, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization warned that food in countries hit by Ebola is becoming more expensive and will become scarcer because some farmers can’t reach their fields.
Authorities have cordoned off entire towns in an effort to halt spread of the virus. Surrounding countries have closed land borders. Seaports are losing traffic, restricting food imports to the hardest-hit countries.
Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone all rely on grain from abroad to feed their people, according to the U.N. food agency.
For instance, the price of cassava root, a staple in many West African diets, has gone up 150 percent in one market in Monrovia.
Compiled from The Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and Bloomberg News