Voices: Kuehn

WHO Escalates Ebola Fight

The strategy is clear: stop Ebola from killing the people of Africa; exactly what Pharma’s role will be is still being worked out

By Steven E. Kuehn, Editor-in-Chief

Just before Labor Day weekend the World Health Organization (WHO) announced: “Ebola caseload could exceed 20,000 in course of emergency, UN response roadmap shows.” Given that two weeks earlier, my impression of the disease, its emergence and its relative global impact, that headline gave me real pause. In my editorial “Viral Politics,” I wrote that I felt the crisis was being addressed in a timely fashion by the pharma industry and the western world’s various health-care and relief agencies.

At the WHO’s press conference, assistant director-general for Polio, Emergencies and Country Collaboration, Dr Bruce Aylward explained that “What we are seeing today in contrast to previous Ebola outbreaks are multiple hotspots within these countries, not a single remote forested area, the kind of environments in which it has been tackled in the past. And then not just multiple hotspots within one country, but international disease, and it is now, as you know, a really multinational effort...”

According to WHO, Ebola cases stand at 3,069, which has generated some 1,552 deaths, making it the largest outbreak to date. Troubling also is the fact that health-care workers are at particular risk, including those not directly treating Ebola victims. According to WHO the actual number of cases may be 2-4 fold higher and that the aggregate caseload could reach 20,000 before it’s stopped.

UN officials urge calm, saying Ebola response must be based on “scientific evidence, not fear.” Unfortunately, because the disease is striking populations that are hampered by illiteracy, superstition and the lack of mass communication, fear, rumor and panic are working overtime to spread misinformation, violence and the disease. Heavy-handed tactics employed to quarantine communities have made things even worse. In a story featuring the comments of 10 world-renowned global health policy experts, The New York Times’ reporter Donald G. McNeil offered this consensus: “Leadership must be imposed … perhaps with a West African in charge … And a new strategy is needed, with the first priority being to stop the panic caused by imprisoning residents of the affected countries behind barbed wire and roadblocks.” The WHO acknowledges that among the things to really fear about this crisis is fear: “The fear factor plays a strong role in the crisis,” said U.N. deputy secretary general Jan Eliasson. Indeed, and the WHO is asking concerned governments and agencies to collectively fund the effort to stop Ebola, calculating it will take some $500 million.

Since I wrote about the blame and suspicion cast on the Pharma industry and the West’s version of capitalism, the dynamic of the crisis and opinions of the best ways to fight it have changed dramatically. Yes, Pharma’s working an effective arms race against Ebola — but the reality is the drugs the industry can and will provide aren’t going to win this particular fight alone. Of the 10 experts The New York Times queried, “Most agreed on basic principles. All, for example, were sure the outbreak could be stopped without experimental drugs and vaccines.” Can pharmaceuticals fight fear? Yes, but only solid leadership and a well coordinated response by governments and agencies, as well as Pharma’s considerable resources will help Africans get the job done now to stop the fear and future outbreaks.

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