At UN, Obama urges more countries to join Ebola battle

The global battle against West Africa’s Ebola epidemic was in the spotlight today at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in New York City, as experts briefed congressional staff on the latest US response developments and outbreak challenges.

In an address today before the UN, President Barack Obama cited a ""pervasive unease in our world"" and spoke of Ebola as one of the factors, alongside other threats such as terrorism, the clash in Ukraine, and climate change. He also pressed for more nations to assist with the outbreak response.

Obama, Pope Francis make Ebola pleas

"As we speak, America is deploying our doctors and scientists—supported by our military— to help contain the outbreak of Ebola and pursue new treatments," Obama said. "But we need a broader effort to stop a disease that could kill hundreds of thousands, inflict horrific suffering, destabilize economies, and move rapidly across borders."

"It's easy to see this as a distant problem—until it is not," he said, urging other countries to join the United States in making significant commitments to battle the outbreak.

Meanwhile, Pope Francis also urged more international assistance for West Africa's Ebola battle, a message he delivered during a weekly general audience to pray for the epidemic’s victims, the Associated Press (AP) reported. He issued a similar plea yesterday during a meeting with bishops from Ghana.

New details on US aid

Officials from several US government departments today revealed new details about the federal response to the Ebola epidemic. They were part of a Congressional seminar hosted by two members of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs—Chris Coons, D-Del., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.—and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's (UPMC) Center for Health Security.

Andrew Weber, assistant defense secretary for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs, said Army Major General Darryl Williams, leader of Operation United Assistance, a US military effort to help with outbreak response, arrived in Liberia last week where he and his team are conducting an assessment.

Weber said the United States is sending two more diagnostic labs to assist with activities at two Liberian Ebola treatment centers, one in Monrovia and another in Bome. Though as many as 3,000 US troops will be deployed, they won’t be working with patients.

One of their key activities will be building 17 treatment centers in Liberia, each with the capacity to handle 100 patients, Weber said. He added that two $500 million reprogramming requests are under consideration to fund the Department of Defense’s outbreak response activities, which would bring the total commitment to as much as $1 billion.

The United States is also establishing a center in Liberia to teach West African medical providers about treating Ebola, focusing on infection control, with a capacity of training 500 workers per week, he said. The program will be similar to one the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has established at a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) center in Anniston, Ala., to train American health workers who will be traveling to West Africa to help care for Ebola patients.

CDC Director Tom Frieden, MD, MPH, said each of the three main outbreak countries now has an incident manager, which the CDC is supporting with the establishment of command centers. He said the centers have communication leads, who help clarify objectives for each part of the response.

Firsthand look at Ebola challenges

Also at the seminar, Joseph Fair, PhD, MPH, an American virologist who is special advisor to Sierra Leone’s health ministry, provided a stark firsthand view of the disease's toll and the challenges the nations face. He described the emotional toll at overflowing treatment centers, where patients see dead bodies pile up, because there aren’t enough body bags. "And all that you can imagine is that you’re going to be next."

It’s no surprise that patients see the treatment centers as houses of death, and messages about the benefits of supportive care despite lack of specific treatments—though accurate—haven’t helped, because they aren’t clearly understood by local populations, Fair said. Rather than believing that supportive care can help, some people turn to folk treatments such as bloodletting, which can contribute to the spread of the disease.

Sierra Leone will soon enter its dry season, which in some areas often brings an increase in Lassa fever infections, raising the possibility that some places will be battling two viral hemorrhagic fever diseases at the same time, he said.

Among other outbreak concerns, some factions—such as the government opposition group in eastern Sierra Leone—have used the outbreak for political gain,Fair said. He added that the country’s recent lockdown has been mischaracterized in the media and that the government’s main mission was to conduct a home sensitization campaign to teach people about preventing the disease.

Fair predicted that the US military presence will be well received in Liberia, because the country is a staunch US ally and the US has been training Liberian troops for the past 4 or 5 years. He also said two qualities that Doctors without Borders is known for, logistics and discipline, also apply to the military approach.

Red Cross team attacked

In other outbreak developments:

  • A Red Cross team working in southeastern Guinea came under attack yesterday while collecting bodies of suspected Ebola victims, the AP reported today. Family members of the dead attacked the team, wounding one of them in the neck, vandalized their car, and threw rocks at a regional health office, according to the report.
  • The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today said it has issued warning letters to three companies that market products claiming to prevent or treat Ebola infections. They include two Utah-based companies, doTERRA International and Young Living, and New Jersey-based Natural Solutions Foundation. The FDA said there are no drugs or vaccines approved to treat EVD and that companies promoting unapproved or fraudulent products should correct the claims or face further FDA action. The warning letters follow an Aug 14 FDA announcement warning consumers to beware of false claims and fraudulent products.
  • Inovio Pharmaceuticals, based in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., announced today that it will launch a phase 1 study of its DNA-based Ebola vaccine in the first half of 2015. It will conduct the trial with GeneOne Life Science Inc., a manufacturer in which Inovio holds a minority interest. After the companies complete the study, they will seek third-party support to further develop and market the vaccine, which has shown promise in guinea pig and mouse studies.
  • The CDC yesterday posted an Ebola readiness list for local and state health departments. The resource is centered on already posted CDC Ebola guidance materials for health departments, such as identifying patients with suspected infections and assessing lab capabilities, and is designed to help groups gauge their readiness, identify gaps, and address shortfalls.
  • The US Embassy in Ivory Coast yesterday wrapped up a 2-day Ebola preparedness workshop in Abidjan for representatives from 10 African nations. The sessions focused on strengthening preparedness plans, sharing information, and collaborating on addressing the crisis. Last week the embassy announced that experts from the CDC arrived in Ivory Coast to provide technical assistance to the government and to help support a regional approach to containing the epidemic.

See also:

Sep 24 Obama address to the UN

Sep 24 AP story

Sep 24 AP story on Guinea attack

Sep 24 FDA warning letter announcement

Sep 24 Inovio press release

Sep 23 CDC tips for local and state health department Ebola preparedness

Sep 22 US Embassy statement

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