At what was at times a combative congressional hearing Thursday on the burgeoning Ebola crisis in West Africa, congressmen and Africa aid workers criticized both the United States and international response to the outbreak, asserting it has been insufficient to fight the disease.
While the chorus of criticism grows, however, the Obama administration plans to cut spending for a clinic in Sierra Leone that has become an ad-hoc Ebola center, while denying the government of Nigeria access to an experimental anti-Ebola virus drug.
At the hearing before the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs subcommittee, Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Tom Frieden vowed to the committee that the Ebola outbreak “can be stopped.” He told the members of Congress that the CDC was working at breakneck pace to stop the spread of the disease. “It’s going to be a long, hard fight, but we are there. We are surging our response and we are doing what we can to help stop it at the source in Africa and protect Americans here,” he concluded.
Frieden’s comments were met with skepticism in the wake of other testimonies to the committee. The New York Times reports that the spokesman of Samaritan’s Purse–the American charity whose workers, Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, are currently fighting off the Ebola virus at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta–criticized, not just the United States, but the international community for its response. “The international response to the disease has been a failure,” said Ken Isaacs, not highlighting any particular nation.
The Times also notes that, of the many meetings between President Obama and African leaders at the White House Pan-African summit this week, only two were scheduled to discuss the growing Ebola threat. That, say experts, was a pivotal error on the part of the Obama administration. “It seemed to me a huge loss to have so many of the key players of the African continent–all of the heads of states, all of the finance and trade ministers, all in Washington, all available for a conversation–and there was no specific, concerted effort to ask the ‘what if’ question and reach some kind of basic agreement,” Laurie Garrett, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, told The New York Times.
Dr. Frieden’s promise to the committee to not just fend off the Ebola outbreak, but leave stronger medical institutions in Africa in its wake could not have been more ill-timed, given the actions of the Obama administration on the ground in the region. Nigeria, which has had two confirmed Ebola deaths and five living confirmed cases, is crying out for help. The Nigerian newspaper Vanguard reported Friday that, despite repeated requests, President Obama has denied Nigeria access to a new experimental drug, ZMapp, used to fight Ebola on the two Americans infected in Liberia. The President described the drug as too “premature” to share with the rest of the world.
The use of ZMapp on American citizens while hundreds of Africans die of Ebola has raised significant ethical issues internationally, so much so that the World Health Organization has conducted meetings to discuss and, eventually, declare whether use of experimental drugs in cases of emergency and unpredictable scenarios does not violate any medical code.
In addition to withholding ZMapp, the United States is tangentially hurting the efforts against Ebola in Sierra Leone, reports Reuters, by cutting resources to a medical facility now actively participating in the fight. The National Institutes of Health rejected a proposal to fund a research facility on Lassa fever, a different hemorrhagic fever, by Tulane University. Since the outbreak of Ebola, the facility had switched gears and begun to treat Ebola victims, and is one of the few available medical facilities to treat Ebola in the nation.
The rejection of the proposal means, according to Reuters, that the facility will lose $15 million. The Ebola treatment program has already been ravaged internally by the virus itself, losing its director, Dr. Sheik Umar Khan, to the Ebola virus this month.