Though Ebola has faded from national headlines in recent weeks, President Obama reminded Americans Tuesday that the epidemic remains a very real threat to the global community, and as such, requires a continued global response.
Speaking before the National Institutes of Health (NIH) outside of Washington, D.C., Obama called on Congress to pass a $6 billion emergency funding request to fight the disease before lawmakers break for the holidays, saying that the issue was beyond partisan bickering.
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"This can't get caught up in normal politics," the president said. "We need to protect the American people, and we need to show how America leads."
The U.S. has already transferred $750 million from Department of Defense war funds to fight Ebola in West Africa, the epicenter of what has become the disease's worst epidemic in history. Additionally, nearly 3,000 military personnel have joined civilian responders from USAID and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the ground. Their efforts have resulted in the construction of three Ebola treatments units (ETU) and a hospital in Liberia, one of the countries hit hardest by the disease. The international community has also beefed up its response, committing more than $2 billion since mid-September, according to the White House. But more work needs to be done, Obama said.
"We cannot beat Ebola without more funding. If we want other countries to keep stepping up, we will have to continue to lead the way," he said.
Nearly 6,000 people in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone have died from the current Ebola epidemic, according to World Health Organization (WHO) estimates. Though the disease's spread has slowed in Liberia and Guinea, it continues to get worse in Sierra Leone. And as long as Ebola ravages West Africa, the president said, American lives will be at risk.
"Every hotspot is an ember that if not contained can become a new fire, so we cannot let down our guard even for a minute,'' Obama said. "We cannot just fight this epidemic; we have to extinguish it."
While the fight against Ebola may not be over, the president was also quick to hail the progress made so far. In the U.S., state health officials have identified and designated 35 hospitals with Ebola treatment centers, up from three prior to October. In the past week, the NIH also successfully completed Phase 1 of a clinical trial for an Ebola vaccine candidate. Two other vaccines are currently in development.
"No potential Ebola vaccine has ever made it this far, so this is exciting news," said Obama. "But it's also a reminder of the importance of government-funded scientific research."
Investing in a stronger global health infrastructure today would prove critically important in saving lives from future pandemics, said the president. But doing so would also demonstrate "who we are as Americans."
"This disease is not just a test of our health system; it is a test of our character as a nation," said Obama. "When we see a problem in the world, like thousands of people dying from a disease that we know how to fight, do we stand 10 feet away, or 10,000 miles away? Or do we lead, and deploy, and go to help?"
"I know what kind of character I want to see in America," he said.