LIVING

US government acknowledges it could have done more on Ebola, steps up response to disease

10/15/2014 12:05 EDT | Updated 12/14/2014 05:59 EST
FORT WORTH, Texas - The top-disease fighting agency in the U.S. acknowledged Tuesday that an American nurse might not have been infected with Ebola if a special response team had been sent to Dallas immediately after a Liberian man there was diagnosed with Ebola.

The stark admission from the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came as the World Health Organization projected the pace of infections accelerating in West Africa — to as many as 10,000 new cases a week within two months.

In West Africa, a Sierra Leone soldier tested positive for Ebola, although a government spokesman said he is not a member of, and had no contact with, a battalion of peacekeepers waiting to deploy to Somalia, a government spokesman said. Meanwhile, Liberia's transport minister said she was voluntarily isolating herself inside her home after her driver died of Ebola.

The two situations underscore the precautions being taken to minimize the spread of the deadly disease, and the risks inherent in the movement of people.

In another example of the disease's relentless march, Doctors Without Borders said Tuesday that 16 of its staff members have been infected with Ebola and that nine have died.

CDC Director Tom Frieden outlined a series of steps designed to stop the spread of the disease in the U.S., including increased training for health care workers and changes at the Texas hospital where the virus was diagnosed to minimize the risk of more infections.

The announcement of the effort came after top health officials repeatedly assured the public over the last two weeks that they were doing everything possible to control the outbreak by deploying infectious-disease specialists to the hospital where a Liberian man was diagnosed with Ebola and later died.

"I wish we had put a team like this on the ground the day the patient — the first patient — was diagnosed. That might have prevented this infection. But we will do that from today onward with any case anywhere in the U.S.," Frieden said.

Frieden described the new response team as having some of the world's leading experts in how to care for Ebola and protect health care workers. They planned to review everything from how the isolation room is physically laid out, to what protective equipment health workers use, to waste management and decontamination.

The Sierra-Leone soldier became ill while working at a military facility in Bengwema, and has been admitted to a military hospital, according to Abdulai Bayraytay, a spokesman with Sierra Leone's Ministry of Information.

Fear of Ebola's spread has already slowed the deployment of a battalion of Sierra Leone troops, who were supposed to relieve soldiers serving with an African Union mission to protect the Somali government and fight al-Shabab militants. The replacements' deployment was put on hold this summer when the Ebola outbreak in West Africa spiraled out of control.

It was unclear if the announcement of the Ebola case would throw the deployment into doubt.

In Europe, the WHO said the death rate in the outbreak has risen to 70 per cent as it has killed nearly 4,500 people, most of them in West Africa. The previous mortality rate was about 50 per cent.

Anthony Banbury, head of the United Nations mission for Ebola, told the U.N. Security Council that the global response to the Ebola crisis must meet critical goals by Dec. 1 "or face an entirely unprecedented situation for which we don't have a plan."

By that date, the world must ensure that at least 70 per cent of people infected are in treatment and at least 70 per cent of burials occur without contamination, he said. About 7,000 treatment beds would be needed by that time, and projections show that only about 4,300 beds will be available. The Ebola effort also requires 500 burial teams, up from about 50, and all need vehicles, protective suits and chlorine sprayers, Banbury said.

"Ebola got a head start on us, is far ahead of us, is running faster than us and is winning the race," he said.

President Barack Obama, speaking at the end of a meeting with U.S. and allied military leaders, declared that the "the world is not doing enough" to fight Ebola.

Nurse Nina Pham, 26, became the first person to contract the disease on U.S. soil as she cared for Thomas Eric Duncan. Pham released a statement Tuesday through Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital saying she is "doing well," and the hospital listed her in good condition. The hospital CEO said medical staff members remain hopeful about her condition.

Pham's parents live in Fort Worth, where they are part of a close-knit, deeply religious community of Vietnamese Catholics. Members of their church held a special Mass for her Monday and sorority sisters at Texas Christian University held a candlelight vigil for her Tuesday. At the hospital, she received a plasma transfusion from an American doctor who beat the virus.

Pham and other health care workers wore protective gear, including gowns, gloves, masks and face shields — and sometimes full-body suits — when caring for Duncan. Health officials have said there was a breach in protocol that led to the infections, but they don't know where the breakdown occurred.

Among the changes announced Tuesday by Frieden was a plan to limit the number of health care workers who care for Ebola patients so they "can become more familiar and more systematic in how they put on and take off protective equipment, and they can become more comfortable in a healthy way with providing care in the isolation unit."

A total of 76 people at the hospital might have had exposure to Duncan, and all of them are being monitored for fever and other symptoms daily, Frieden said. In addition, health officials have been monitoring 48 others who had some contact with Duncan before he was admitted to the hospital.

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