Commission steps up efforts to fight Ebola, after slow response

The EU has increased financial support to West African countries in fighting Ebola. [Council of the EU]

Health Commissioner Tonio Borg on Monday (20 October) told MEPs that a network of high-security laboratories have been established to ensure that EU member states will have the necessary facilities to diagnose the infected persons infected with Ebola.

Together with Kristalina Georgieva, the commissioner responsible for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response, Borg gave a presentation on the Ebola crisis in front of the MEPs during the European Parliament plenary session in Strasbourg.

“The Commission has also established a network of volunteer clinicians in Europe who have experience in treating Ebola patients,” said Borg.

The executive will approve €25 million in the days to come for pre-clinical research of different possible Ebola vaccines, Borg added.   

The European Commission has taken a number of steps to help these countries and stop the ongoing spread of Ebola. The EU allocated more than €180 million for the cause and has stepped up efforts to ensure medical evacuation for hundreds of European volunteers in West Africa. It has also provided support such as equipment, protective gear, and special aircrafts designed to transport infected patients.

However, MEPs were critical of the Commission’s ‘slow response’ to the crisis. Spanish MEP Lidia Senra Sanchez from the GUE/NGL group said having the adequate medicine is not enough to deal with such a disease.

“We also need to combat the causes that create vulnerability, such as unemployment, which affects some 80% of people in these countries, as well as famine,” she said. “The solution is not just about giving money to the pharmaceutical industry in western countries but providing help to the affected countries that need health workers and other measures.”

Ebola cases worldwide have doubled since mid-September, said Georgieva. In total, the number of infected people went from about 5,000 to 9,000. Similarly, the number of those who died increased, hitting 4,546 from less than 2,000. About 230 of the dead were health professionals working in the field with infected people, she said.

The development aid commissioner also highligted the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) estimation that by mid-December, the global health community will have to deal with more than 10,000 Ebola cases a week.

According to Georgieva, West Africa is dealing not only with a health crisis, but also with an economic and humanitarian crisis. The World Bank predicts that affected countries will lose about €5.7 billion in 2014 and if the virus persists, €19.5 billion in 2015.

The spread of Ebola was also discussed by the EU Foreign Affairs ministers at a meeting in Luxembourg yesterday (20 October). In the Council conclusions, the ministers called on all actors to put in place objective information campaigns for the EU citizens and “to reinforce regional and international cooperation at appropriate levels”. 

International organisations

Natalia Alonso, Oxfam’s deputy director of Advocacy & Campaigns said: 

"Europe needs to get serious by deploying more medical staff and equipment as well as military personnel in the next two weeks. Otherwise, the EU will miss a very narrow window of opportunity to halt this epidemic. [...] Up until now, the response from most EU governments has been woefully inadequate. While tackling the disease requires new, fully-equipped treatment and isolation centers, as well as medical professionals to treat Ebola cases, prevention of new infections must also be a priority."

The European Federation of Public Services Unions commented: 

"This situation is deplorable, and brings to light gross deficiencies, the short-sightedness of under investment in health services and the deeply misguided understaffing of health care workers. The EVD outbreak shows up clearly the threat posed to societies when quality public health systems are absent. Moreover, the widespread failure to equip healthcare workers and to give them the means to protect themselves and save their lives is appalling and intolerable."

European political parties

GUE/NGL MEP Ji?í Maštálka added: 

"We are talking about a disease that doctors have known about for decades and we don't even have a preventive vaccination or any kind of treatment. But we can't avoid the fact that the main reason the disease is spreading are the catastrophic life conditions in these countries, where there is no such thing as a healthcare system. This epidemic is a stress test for our health care and early warning systems as well as our solidarity. I hope we do not fail."

The Ebola epidemic, the worst since the disease was discovered in 1976, has killed more than 4,000 people in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria and has also spread to Senegal.

Ebola is a haemorrhagic fever spread through the blood, sweat or vomit of those infected, making those working directly with the sick among the most vulnerable to the disease.

The WHO believes it will take six to nine months to contain and may infect up to 20,000 people.

F14 of Liberia's 15 counties have reported confirmed cases. As soon as a new Ebola treatment centre is opened, it is immediately swamped with patients.

Liberia's government announced it was extending a nationwide nighttime curfew imposed last month to curb the spread of the disease.

There is not yet any macroeconomic analysis of Ebola's impact on West Africa, with IMF figures only indicating a modest decrease in growth for Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. But NGOs on the ground describe the situation as “catastrophic”.

>> Read: Economic impact of Ebola shrouded in mystery

The first case of infection with the Ebola virus in Europe took place in Spain.

>> Read: Commission summons Spain over Ebola case mishandling

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