It’s time to start thinking about biological threats and deadly diseases, like the current Ebola epidemic sweeping West Africa, “as the security threats that they are,” President Obama said Friday before the Global Health Security Agenda Summit in Washington, D.C.
“[T]his has to be a global priority,” the president told U.S. lawmakers and representatives from 44 nations. “This epidemic underscores vividly and tragically what we already knew, which is in a world as interconnected as ours, outbreaks anywhere – even in the most remote villages, in the remote corners of the world – have the potential to impact everybody, every nation.”
Obama stated that while the current Ebola epidemic “is particularly dangerous,” it’s not the first time a deadly disease has crossed borders. Yet despite experiences with SARS, H1N1 and MERS, the world still scrambles to put together an effective international response.
“Each time, it’s been harder than it should be to share information and to contain the outbreak,” the president said. “As a result, diseases have spread faster and farther than they should have, which means lives are lost that could’ve been saved.”
To end this pattern, the president pledged to lead a global health security agenda that prioritizes three goals: prevention, detection, and response. He also announced a new effort to pay for and make any new design that improves protective gear for health workers. But while the U.S. “will lead,” said Obama, it “cannot do it alone.”
“No nation can meet these challenges on its own,” stressed the president. “Nobody’s that isolated anymore. Oceans don’t protect you; walls don’t protect you. And that means all of us as nations and as an international community need to do more to keep our people safe.”
Obama’s remarks come one day after he addressed the United Nations in New York City, where he called out members of the international community for “not doing enough” to combat the forest fire-like spread of Ebola. “There’s still a significant gap between where we are and where we need to be,” the president said Thursday.
According to the World Health Organization, there have been 6,574 probable, confirmed and suspected Ebola cases in the current outbreak of the disease, as well as 3,091 deaths. Countries affected include Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone. If trends continue, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates cases in Liberia and Sierra Leone could reach 1.4 million within four months.
In the 38-year history of the Ebola virus, outbreaks have previously lasted for short periods of time. Medical experts fear that this time, however, the disease could become the new normal, becoming a stable, ongoing presence among the human population.
Minutes after Obama’s U.N. address, Dr. Rick Sacra, the third American aid worker to be stricken with the disease, was released from the Nebraska Medical Center, Ebola-free. The 51-year-old contracted the disease while working at a hospital in Liberia.
Speaking at a press conference Friday in Worchester, Massachusetts, Sacra said when he arrived in the West African nation early last month, “no hospital was open for the capital city of over a million people.”
“This mass closure of health facilities was due to each one of them having multiple staff members who had become infected with Ebola, and many of whom had died during the exponential increase in cases of June and July,” he continued.
Despite his near-death experience, however, Sacra said the odds of his going back to Liberia, which he called his “adopted home,” were pretty high. “That’s where my heart is,” he said.