YOUR COLUMN HERE — Just last week I received a photo that was sent to me from a friend who lives in Sierra Leone. The picture was of an Ebola victim who had fallen behind my friend’s car into the street from weakness. His text to me read; “this tells me that Ebola is real and [that] it is in Freetown.” This is not an isolated occurrence. Ebola victims, left to die on the road, are becoming familiar sights on the streets of Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Ebola virus is known as a “hemorrhagic” or bleeding virus because it attacks the ability of the body to clot blood. Victims exposed to the virus harbor it without symptoms for up to three weeks, then suddenly, without explanation, they begin bleeding internally and die quickly. Ebola kills 60-70 percent of the people it infects.
Ebola virus was first discovered in1976 in what was then known as Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) and South Sudan. It was named after the Ebola River in the Congo. Over the past three decades several Ebola outbreaks have occurred in isolated and sparsely populated areas of central Africa.
Now, for the first time, Ebola has spread to urban areas of western Africa. The “urbanization” of the virus has increased the number of people affected by the disease and estimates from international infectious disease specialists estimate that over 20,000 lives could be lost in the current epidemic, which has the potential to smolder for another 18-24 months. Already the epidemic has taken over 2,400 lives.
Twenty thousand lives lost is a stark prediction.
But equally concerning is the derivative of Ebola, namely the “fear of Ebola” which has the potential of causing even more depravation and more loss of life than Ebola itself. Already, European airlines have cancelled flights to western Africa, food prices have increased as supplies dwindle, international NGO workers have left the area and trade between affected countries has decreased to a trickle. Later this month, the government of Sierra Leone has announced that there will be a four day stoppage of all activities with residents required to stay in their homes in their effort to halt Ebola’s march.
The net effect of these cascading events is this: Western Africa has been cut off from the world at the exact moment when international help is needed most.
I and my medical colleagues Lawrence Czer, M.D. from Santa Monica and Kevin White, M.D. from Ventura, experienced first-hand the fear of Ebola earlier this year as we led the 20th Lighthouse Medical Missions trip this past March. As we planned our departure we watched with concern reports of an Ebola outbreak in rural Guinea, a country that bordered one of our intended destinations. These cases were the first ever Ebola flare reported in western Africa, but the infection appeared to be limited and localized to a remote area.
Soon after we arrived in Africa, however, we learned that Ebola had spread to Conakry, the capitol of Guinea. This was the first time Ebola had occurred in a populated area. Within days news reports came that the disease had spread to Sierra Leone and Liberia. Finally, we heard of two suspected cases (both later turned out to be negative) of Ebola in The Gambia, close to the free clinic we had opened in Banjul, The Gambia’s capitol.
Concerned with the rapid spread of the disease and aware that a large percentage of those who die of Ebola are health care workers, we reluctantly decided to close our clinics. The sadness we felt as we shut our doors on hundreds of needy patients was profound! Looking back, however, it’s clear that we made the right decision.
Ebola virus presents to the Western World an epic challenge. Medical resources available in western African countries are limited, even in “normal” times. These are not normal times. America is a nation of compassion and generosity. We have proven this, countless times, throughout our history when international humanitarian crises arise. Ebola represents another such emergency. The United States must lead the coalition to fight this disease with resources and “boots on the ground” as soon as possible.
I am encouraged to see that our President, in his visit to Atlanta’s Center for Disease Control” this past Tuesday, has the same thoughts. Mr. Obamas’s comments that Ebola is “spiraling out of control” are correct. His request to Congress for funding to stop Ebola is timely and needed to prevent even a greater crisis that looms over Western Africa. Not only will American expertise save lives, but our presence will also quiet the fear of Ebola, which has the potential to destabilize the region. Political chaos breeds in the crucible of crisis.
Now is the time for Congress to act on Mr. Obama’s proposals and get America on the battlefront of hope.

Robert C. Hamilton, M.D. is a practicing pediatrician from Santa Monica and the “Coordinator” of Lighthouse Medical Missions. LMM is a charity based in Santa Monica. It has taken medical teams to western Africa since 1998

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