USAID Steps Up Building Of New Ebola Treatment Units
LYNN NEARY, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. It's been nine months since the deadly Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The disease has killed, by most estimates, more than 2,400 people. And the number of cases appears to be growing faster than the international response can manage them. This week, the World Health Organization made yet another call for health workers to come to the region, estimating that at least 1,000 health workers are needed on the ground. But countries don't appear to be willing to pledge more than a handful here and there. Cuba just pledged 165 people. To put that in perspective, the WHO has estimated that 200 to 250 medical staff are needed to safely manage just 70 beds.
Dr. Rajiv Shah is the head of USAID, the United States Agency for International Development, which is the main agency coordinating the U.S. response. He joins us here in Washington, D.C. Welcome, Dr. Shah.
DR. RAJIV SHAH: Thank you for having me.
NEARY: What about this need for boots-on-the-ground, doctors and nurses? What can USAID do to scale up that response?
SHAH: Well, I think it's important to note that the response has been in place since March. And we've had a team of more than 100 experts - disease control specialists, epidemiologist, scientists. They've brought in more than 140,000 sets of personal protective equipment. They distributed tens of thousands of home hygiene kits and worked with families to prevent transmission in rural communities. And they've more than doubled the laboratory capacity in Liberia, for example. So you can actually diagnose and trace cases as they occur. But that is not enough.
And so over the last several weeks, we've been significantly accelerating the response and are now putting in place a significant number of additional Ebola treatment units such that patients have both access to care in facilities and can have access to care and isolation in their homes and communities because that ultimately is how we will help turn the tide on this epidemic.
NEARY: Is there an effort to try and get more U.S. health workers to volunteer to go over there? And I mean, how do you even begin to coordinate that kind of an effort?
SHAH: There's an extraordinary need for healthcare workers right now to come to West Africa and be part of this response. We have asked any interested health care professionals to register at www.usaid.gov. And from there we can link you to one of our partner organizations that are scaling up Ebola treatment capabilities throughout the region.
We think that that kind of a response is going to be really important in order to get ahead of the crisis and in order to ensure that more people who are at risk are getting some degree of medical care so that we can help turn this epidemic around.
NEARY: I mean, obviously the concern that many countries must have in terms of sending healthcare workers in there is that healthcare workers are getting infected. And of course that is an indication that there's not good infection control in these hospitals. Is there anything USAID can do to address that problem?
SHAH: There is. And we have worked hard to coordinate with the United States military that is helping to establish, as President Obama announced, a 25-bed medical unit in Liberia. The United Kingdom military is setting up a 12-bed unit in Sierra Leone. And these higher order more sophisticated medical care facilities will allow healthcare workers who get sick to have access to very high quality treatment right there right away. In addition, we're working to put in place medical evacuation capabilities so that people who need to avail themselves of that can.
NEARY: Now one critique of the response has been that there has not been a good sense of who is actually in charge or leading the international response and that maybe that has contributed to the growth of this problem.
SHAH: Well, it's important to note that it is a large-scale international effort. The United States has committed more than $100 million. The European Union has put in and made commitments just last week of more than $180 million. The United Kingdom, private organizations, the African Development Bank and the World Bank are all putting in tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. So that investment and partnership is going to be critical so that everyone is sharing the burden and everybody is working together.
The United Nations has created a coordinator to manage this effort both globally and on the ground. And more sophisticated management systems are being put in place to make sure that as we scale up the solutions, they're reaching the right communities. For example, we are now working with dozens of partners to help reach communities with safe burial teams. These are highly-trained, sophisticated teams wearing protective equipment going into communities and helping families who have deceased family members - helping them with dignity dispose of their family member's remains without leading to further infection because the way bodies have been handled after death has been a main point of continued disease transmission. Those are the kinds of solutions we have to continue to scale up, and it's why we're eager to have people sign up at usaid.gov.
NEARY: Dr. Rajiv Shah is the head of USAID. Thanks so much for joining us.
SHAH: Thank you very much.