Bill Frist: A hard look at the Ebola epidemic and barriers to containment

Gloves drying after being disinfected at the Elwa hospital run by French NGO Medecins Sans Frontieres in Monrovia, Liberia during the current Ebola outbreak. Photo by Dominique Faget/Afp/Getty

Gloves drying after being disinfected at the Elwa hospital run by French NGO Medecins Sans Frontieres in Monrovia, Liberia during the current Ebola outbreak. Photo by Dominique Faget/Afp/Getty

I was shocked to learn that the largest previous Ebola outbreak occurred in 1976 in Zaire: 318 confirmed cases and 280 deaths, but the current outbreak in West Africa has exceeded 4,200 cases with 2,200 deaths and growing. According to WHO estimates, 10,000 more lives will be lost before the virus is contained.

This is terrifying, I know. I remember feeling the same urgency over a decade ago. I was working with Bono on the ground in Africa, traveling across the U.S. on a listening tour, and I ultimately went to the White House to inform then-President George W. Bush that the U.S. desperately needed to address HIV/AIDS.

That appeal worked. President Bush boldly announced the unprecedented President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) during the State of the Union Address in 2003—a time when only 50,000 people in Africa had access to anti-retroviral therapy.

Today 12.8 million people have access to these drugs, and PEPFAR has provided HIV testing and counseling to 57 million people. In 2011 alone, PEPFAR provided services to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV resulting in over 240,000 babies born free of HIV.

This is what the U.S. is capable of.

Today, Ebola is ravaging West Africa thanks to a confluence of circumstances. But the important message is, that we can address these circumstances, and we are not in this predicament for lack of a vaccine or anti-viral drug. The real issue are the significant cultural barriers to containing the outbreak, and lack of medical infrastructure in West Africa.

For example, people are avoiding treatment because of a widespread local doubt that Ebola even exists. There is fear that medical workers—foreign and local—are spreading the virus. Families do not want their loved ones to die in isolation, so they choose to keep them home.

Additionally, when an individual succumbs to the virus, burial practices of washing and kissing the body and then reusing the burial mat further spreads the disease because the recently deceased Ebola victim is actively shedding the virus from her skin.

For these reasons, changing culture by working within the culture will be imperative to our success. With HIV/AIDS, PEPFAR collaborated with traditional medical practitioners to deliver education and training, while also building an infrastructure that was sustainable. With HIV there were cultural practices like using leeches for bleeding that increased transmission of HIV outside safe sex practices or reusing needles. We had to address those practices in a culturally sensitive way.

We are also faced with a tragic lack of resources. The medical supplies and personnel needed to offer the routine intensive care necessary to support someone through a hemorrhagic fever like Ebola simply do not exist in West Africa.

President Obama has just announced an escalation of military involvement in Liberia only. He has committed 1,700 beds, to training of 500 health care workers and sending 400,000 home treatment kits. This will all be deployed by the Department of Defense via “command and control,” meaning they will deliver and direct the use of the resources to treat the sick.

While this is a major commitment, it is only for Liberia, but I suspect once we have boots on the ground, we will escalate even further.

As a former member of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, I have spent a lot of time dealing with the tension between our responsibility to protect and the sovereignty of foreign nations. There are myriad issues at play.

Specifically, military involvement in humanitarian efforts must always be approached carefully. I truly believe that global health is a vital diplomatic instrument to strengthen confidence in America’s intent and ability to bring long-term improvements to citizen’s lives in other nations. The fight for global health can be the calling card of our nation’s character in the eyes of the world.

I also agree that our military comprises brilliant and compassionate minds and state of the art resources. But use of the military instead of an NGO or an organization like USAID comes at a price. There is always a tension between giving aid and the deeply instilled training to maintain order especially in a humanitarian situation when the rules of engagement prevent the military from firing unless fired upon.

We can win hearts and minds with military help, but we must do it in the right way – by building a sustainable infrastructure and empowering West Africans to continue the work. The commitment to build facilities and train local personnel is a good start.

Without containment, this epidemic will become a pandemic. The World community including the U.S. needs to help. However, help needs to be culturally sensitive and build lasting solutions. We cannot fish for them, we must teach them to fish.

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Bill Frist, M.D is a nationally acclaimed heart and lung transplant surgeon and former U. S. Senate Majority Leader. Dr. Frist represented Tennessee in the U.S. Senate for 12 years where he served on both the Health and Finance committees responsible for writing health legislation. Dr. Frist was the former Co-Chair of ONE Vote ’08 and his leadership was instrumental in the passage of PEPFAR.