The head of a key humanitarian group working to combat the Ebola outbreak said recent actions by the CDC show the agency is learning to adapt in the face of the “humbling” disease, but warned that the world is far from out of the woods on controlling it.
“From a 30,000 foot view, we’re moving in the right direction. Resources are being mobilized. Countries are awake. People are paying attention, things are being done,” Ken Isaacs, the vice president of programs and government relations at Samaritan’s Purse, said in an interview.
Still, estimates of when Ebola will “peak” and the world will begin winning its battle against it are sobering.
“What I’m hoping is that we will soon see a peak in the disease. I don’t know that that’s going to happen. I hope that’s going to happen. I’ve seen some models that show the disease peaking in May or June of 2015. I’ve seen some show it peaking in February. And I’ve seen some that don’t show it peaking until the summer of 2016,” said Isaacs.
Samaritan’s Purse, headed by Franklin Graham and based in North Carolina, has been doing relief work in Liberia, ground zero for the Ebola outbreak, since 2003. When the disease began killing people there, its doctors and workers were on the front lines – and one, Kent Brantly, caught Ebola and only recovered once flown back to the U.S.
In past months, Isaacs has issued stark warnings about the gathering threat of Ebola, including at a congressional hearing in August in which he said African countries have “an atmosphere of apocalypse.”
Isaacs has been sharply critical about the CDC’s efforts to combat Ebola, recently saying the “attitude that has emanated from CDC is one of smugness.”
But in the interview, he praised recent decisions by the CDC to strengthen its protocols for protective gear for nurses and institute new screening restrictions at airports.
The CDC, he said, is “ruled by policy. When a policy is created, I can talk to CDC, I can talk to their senior leadership, and what they have is their policy. That’s what they have. And if you don’t agree with their policy, they’re just going to tell you, ‘we don’t agree with you because this is our policy.’ I think in the way, the mechanics of their structure limits them to stay within the realm of their policy. Like any big organization, when it comes time to make a policy change, that’s something of a dynamic shift.
Last week, though, the agency “made some major policy shifts – closer screening at the airport, and, in identifying four hospitals in the United States qualified to receive Ebola patients, and they changed their policy in minimum requirements for” protective gear.
“So they shifted their policy. I think they were feeling confident in their prior policies. When people would talk to them, or you would hear them come out at the podium, they’re exuding that confidence because they believe in the policy. Ebola is a humbling disease, and it respects no one and no entity,” Isaacs said.
He supports, with qualifications, a travel ban, Isaacs said, the key caveat being that steps must be taken to ensure humanitarian workers are able to move freely to Ebola hot zones. International efforts have been lacking in providing air transport, Isaacs said.
“I would not be in favor of shutting off the air space completely because that is going to hurt people. But I do think that air passenger traffic should be managed and I think that a prudent way could be found in 30 day tranches of time to restrict passenger travel and then reassess it mid-term all the time,” he said.
Although he considers it prudent for the U.S. to restrict travel, a more significant concern is Asia, where more people live more densely, and in some cultures doctors examine patients without gloves.
“I don’t think it’s an American issue, I think it’s a global issue and it needs to be looked at carefully. I don’t think any cards should be taken off the table when it comes to stopping the disease. All decisions should be made from the singular focus of ‘stop the disease. Stop the disease,'” Isaacs said.