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West Africa's Ebola Outbreak Declared International Emergency


And then there's this story we're following - the World Health Organization has declared the Ebola outbreak in West Africa a public health emergency. The disease, as we reported, has claimed at least 900 lives and in total, more than 1,700 people have fallen ill.


WHO officials say the key to containing this crisis will be to massively ramp up support for the health workers at the frontline of the outbreak. To tell us more, NPR's Nurith Aizenman is here in the studio with us.

Nurith, good morning.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: We've heard a lot of pronouncements from different places, different governments dealing with this, from the CDC. Now we hear from the WHO. What exactly are they recommending here?

AIZENMAN: Well for the most part, they're recommending measures that are to some extent are already underway. They're urging leaders of the three countries where the outbreak is are raging - that's Sierra Leone and Liberia and Guinea - to take personal charge of their government's response and to really treat this as a national emergency, which, over the last week or so those leaders have started to do.

GREENE: Well, recommending measures that are already to some extent - already underway - it makes it sound like this could be largely symbolic.

AIZENMAN: Well, yes and no. Just as importantly here, the WHO is really trying to galvanize international community to step up its response. And this is mainly about beefing up support to health workers. A big reason this outbreak has spiraled out of control is that these are very poor countries with very weak health systems. There just aren't enough doctors to treat patients, or testing labs, or caseworkers to track down people who might've been exposed. And a lot of health workers haven't been paid or don't even have protective gear. So about 150 health workers have come down with Ebola and 80 of them have died.

GREENE: Wow. That gives you a sense of the challenge.

Do we know if the international community is going to respond in ways in that the WHO is asking?

AIZENMAN: Well, the World Bank and other organizations and governments, including the United States, have already pledged more than $200 million to this effort. And in the next couple of days and weeks we'll see how quickly this translates into an infusion of resources on the ground.

But there are a lot of challenges here. Dr. Margaret Chan, who's the director general of the WHO, she acknowledged that the aid group Doctors Without Borders, which has been providing a lot of the care, has been stretched to the breaking point. There's a desperate need for more doctors and health workers and they also need to get much better at identifying people who've had contact with an infected person. People are still really afraid to report themselves or go to a hospital if they're showing signs of the disease.

GREENE: Nurith, World Health Organization - I mean, they would be the group you would expect to take a global approach to this. This is a disease that has already spread through air travel. We know there was a case of a man who brought it from Liberia to Nigeria. I mean, are they recommending any sort of restrictions on travel?

AIZENMAN: Well, interestingly, the WHO's director general, Dr. Chan, stopped short of calling for any travel or trade bans to the affected countries. She said that was unnecessary and she said that would impose economic hardship to no purpose. But she is recommending that the three countries at the epicenter screen people at their borders so that people who show symptoms of the disease or who were directly exposed to an infected person don't travel. Now, that is going to be hard. There's this hot spot of the disease, which is this meeting point of the three countries, this border area. And it's not like there are only a few roads in and out. I mean, there are a lot of foot paths and most people come in and out on foot.

GREENE: Just briefly, I mean, does the WHO think that this outbreak can be stopped?

AIZENMAN: Well, they say that right now the disease is spreading faster than authorities can contain it. But on the upside, this disease isn't as easy to transmit. Unlike the flu, it doesn't spread through the air, so that's some reason for hope here.

GREENE: All right. Nurith, thanks very much.

AIZENMAN: Glad to do it.

GREENE: That's NPR's Nurith Aizenman, speaking to us about the latest efforts to fight the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.