Last Thursday, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), in its first emergency meeting on an acute public health crisis, declared the Ebola outbreak in West Africa a threat to international peace and security. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced that the UN would deploy an emergency health mission to combat one of the most devastating outbreaks on the planet. The UN is, at last, taking extraordinary steps to tackle this emergency.
The number of Ebola cases and deaths in the current epidemic has already exceeded the totals for all previous outbreaks combined. In fact, current reports show that more than 5,500 people have been infected by Ebola and more than 2,500 killed by it, but these are "vast underestimates".
Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of UN World Health Organization (WHO) said: "None of us experienced in containing outbreaks has ever seen, in our lifetimes, an emergency on this scale, with this degree of suffering and with this magnitude of cascading consequences."
The five priorities of the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER) are to stop the outbreak, treat the infected, ensure essential services, preserve stability and prevent further outbreaks.
The mission's effectiveness will depend on support from the international community, a 20-fold increase in assistance, and almost $1 billion over the next six months. China, Cuba, the United Kingdom, and the United States are contributing a variety of assets, including military.
Very specifically, the U.S. Government has provided $100 million; and $75 million for 1,000 treatment beds in Liberia and 130,000 protective suits for health workers. Congress was recently asked to provide another $88 million for additional supplies and public health personnel. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has already sent 103 staffers to West Africa, and plans to send 50 more.
Last Thursday, U.S. President Barak Obama announced a "ramping up" of medical assistance to the affected West African countries and is preparing to assign 3,000 military personnel to the region for medical and logistical support. These military personnel will train as many as 500 health care workers a week and erect 17,100-bed health care facilities, in the region, establish a joint command centre to co-ordinate relief efforts in the region, and provide home health care kits to hundreds of thousands of households.
China has sent 115 health care workers, a mobile lab and a staff of 59 to help undertake tests. Cuba has sent 165 health care workers. WHO Director General, Dr. Margaret Chan, continues to stress that the key to beating the disease is "people power". Pledges of equipment and money are coming in, but 500- 600 foreign experts are needed.
What about Canada? Will our Government do more to help, beyond the most recently announced $7.5 million? Will the acting Chief Public Health Officer of Canada speak directly to Canadians to communicate the global impact of Ebola, and coordinate and support health workers who wish to assist efforts in West Africa?
Will the Government show leadership in responding to this deadly outbreak and offer help needed to contain and control it, including much needed field hospitals and other equipment? And will the Government consider deploying more health care specialists and armed forces personnel in collaboration with the U.S. to face the outbreak?
The WHO has stated that money and materials are important, but they alone cannot stop Ebola virus transmission. Human resources, including vital expertise and front-line crisis relief workers, are clearly their most important need.
Despite having been asked numerous times during the emergency debate on Ebola in the House of Commons on September 14th, the Government refused to share just how many Canadian health care personnel have been sent to West Africa.
The number of personnel and equipment matters, as 200 doctors and nurses are needed for a 70- to 80-bed Ebola treatment centre. The number of current beds available to treat an Ebola patient anywhere in Liberia is currently zero.
Canadians should also ask whether the Government will call on non-traditional partners (the private sector, for example) to contribute in the areas of communications, health, information, and transport.
The UNSC and Emergency Committee of the WHO have expressed concern about the detrimental effect of the isolation of Ebola-hit Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone as a result of travel and trade restrictions imposed on the affected countries. Will the Government explain to Canadians how it will facilitate the delivery of assistance, including qualified, specialized and trained personnel and supplies to the affected countries?
The Government and the Prime Minister must accelerate and intensify Canada's efforts. The UN very clearly stated that a humane world cannot allow West Africa to suffer on such an extraordinary scale. It is not too late.
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