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13 November 2014 – There has been important progress made in the global fight against Ebola but a scaling-up in the overall response remains necessary if the deadly outbreak is to be fully stopped, top United Nations officials told the UN General Assembly today as they cautioned against complacency in tackling the disease.
Addressing an informal briefing the Assembly on the international community’s Ebola response to the outbreak, Anthony Banbury, the head of the UN emergency health mission tasked with coordinating the effort, known as UNMEER, drew particular attention to the “grim milestone” of more than 5,000 confirmed deaths from the disease, “with the real numbers likely to be much greater.”
He also observed that during his recent trips to frontline countries in hard-hit West Africa, the respective Governments had repeatedly stressed the devastating impact the outbreak has had on every aspect of their societies, injecting fear into communities, “upending their way of life” far beyond the “human toll” ¬– leaving numerous orphans in its wake, as well as skyrocketing food prices, school closures, empty markets and collapsing Government revenues.
At the same time, he underlined that “many good things” are also happening, he said, noting first and foremost that some of the early predictions regarding the sustained exponential increase in victims had not materialized.
Indeed, there have been “significant improvements” in many of the dramatically hit areas, such as Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, as well as “tremendous progress” towards the stated UN goal of managing and treating 70 per cent of Ebola cases and making safe 70 per cent of burials by 1 December. The percentages, he explained, were now 55 and 80, respectively, although there were still many unknown and unreported cases.
Community-level action is one of the main reasons for the progress, Mr. Banbury continued, praising “those local communities that have taken action, that have changed their behaviour in order to protect themselves their members, and they deserve a tremendous amount of credit.”
In addition, national-led responses, in coordination with international partners, were also making a difference, he continued, noting that the Governments of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea are taking a serious leadership role in driving the response, built around strengthened Ebola treatment facilities, contact tracing and diagnostic capabilities, safer burials, and social mobilization.
The UNMEER chief also praised his Mission’s nimble approach to tackling the challenges in West Africa and pointed out that the UN, overall, has responded to Ebola in an “unprecedented way across bureaucratic barriers in record time” – a feat, he said, that everyone “can rightly be proud of.”
Yet he also voiced apprehension over the tasks that lay ahead, confessing that he feared he had “not done enough and that collectively we must do more and do it faster.”
“Ebola is a fearsome enemy and we will not win by chasing it. We must get ahead of it,” Mr. Banbury continued. “We need more staff to be deployed to the districts where the disease is. In terms of the broader response, we need more Ebola treatment facilities, more community care centres, more partners on the ground to staff these centres. We need greater mobility for the teams. And we need money to pay for it all.”
At a media stakeout following the briefing, Mr. Banbury reiterated his point that the UN strategy against Ebola was “working” but that the principal challenge facing the response efforts was that the disease had spread so much geographically.
“We need a much greater geographic dispersal and much faster mobility,” he told reporters. “This is happening now thanks to mobilization of resources but we need to do more and do it faster.”
Echoing Mr. Banbury’s call for a scaled-up, agile response to the outbreak, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on Ebola, Dr. David Nabarro, told the General Assembly he was “humbled” by the efforts made in combatting the disease and reiterated his claim that Ebola remained one of the most troubling challenges that the world could face.
He cited the positive efforts made by local communities in changing the way they live and behave to reduce their likelihood of contracting the disease and said he was “impressed” by the “unprecedented” global response coalition which was developing and functioning as a joint community.
“The long-term is now,” he concluded, as he called on the international community to accelerate its response efforts. “Let us continue to provide the maximum possible support to the governments.”
Opening an informal briefing, UN General Assembly President, Sam Kutesa, confirmed the “important improvements” made on the ground following recent frontline reports from Guinea and Liberia suggesting significant decreases in infection rates. But, he warned, while the number of new cases was slowing down, the total number across the region still remained perilously high.
“The resounding message from those in the hardest hit areas is that while we are making encouraging progress in combatting Ebola, we have not yet won the war,” Mr. Kutesa said. “We must do more to ensure that the momentum is sustained and that critical resources reach those in urgent need without delay.”
The UN system has been accelerating its Ebola response, including ramped up on-the-ground medical assistance for local governments in affected areas via UNMEER; providing financial support for the countries hardest hit by the socio-economic consequences of the disease through the World Bank; and monitoring the urgent laboratory testing of an experimental Ebola vaccine which, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), could be distributed across West Africa as early as January 2015.
Nevertheless, the General Assembly President explained that the Ebola epidemic was “far from contained” and urged the international community to “stay vigilant and committed to stopping this scourge.”
Susanna Malcorra, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Chef de Cabinet, agreed as she conveyed Mr. Ban’s appreciation to Member States for their “strong response” to his appeal for increased financial, technical and human support.
Speaking on behalf of the Secretary-General, who is currently on official visit to Southeast Asia, Ms. Malcorra noted, however, that Ebola presented a stark challenge for the international community as it is “an elusive disease,” constantly moving, never standing still in any one geographic location. A comprehensive response, she said, would require responders to adjust and adapt to the shifting reality on the ground.
The elusive nature of the disease, in fact, remains one of Ebola’s most insidious characteristics, as it risks slipping away from the grip of health workers and responders labouring in the most affected districts and flaring up again in neighbouring areas and countries.
In its latest situation report on the Ebola response, the UN World Health Organization (WHO) described a “mixed picture” on the ground with case incidences no longer increasing nationally in Guinea and Liberia while “steep increases persist in Sierra Leone.” In addition, the WHO notes, there have been four reported confirmed and probable cases and four deaths in Mali.