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Fresh from pressing the rest of the world to step up and help West Africa get Ebola under control, President Barack Obama urged the country and the world to take the next step and work to prevent another train wreck like Ebola.
Almost everyone agrees that the response to Ebola in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia was far too slow, allowing what should have been an easily controlled outbreak turn into an all-out epidemic — one that’s still growing and that will kill thousands more people even with a full international response.
The key is to think of disease not as a humanitarian issue, but as a security threat, Obama told a White House meeting on a new set of international agreements called the Global Health Security Agenda.
“We have to change our mindsets and start thinking about biological threats as the security threats that they are — in addition to being humanitarian threats and economic threats,” Obama told experts gathered at the White House Friday.
“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 and the remote corners of the world, have the potential to impact everybody, every nation."
The Ebola epidemic has made more than 6,500 people sick and killed 3,000 — far more than all previous outbreaks combined. It’s worsening, and experts say the sudden international push that started early this month is not making inroads yet.
"Diseases have spread faster and farther than they should have."
And this isn't the first time the world’s been caught off guard, Obama noted.
“And though this Ebola epidemic is particularly dangerous, we've seen deadly diseases cross borders before — H1N1. SARS. MERS. And each time, the world scrambles to coordinate a response,” he said.
“Each time, it's been harder than it should be to share information and to contain the outbreak. As a result, diseases have spread faster and farther than they should have — which means lives are lost that could have been saved. With all the knowledge, all the medical talent, all the advanced technologies at our disposal, it is unacceptable if, because of lack of preparedness and planning and global coordination, people are dying when they don't have to.”
With all the crises in the world — Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria , to name just a few — governments should be motivated to do what they can to prevent more trouble, says Dr. Keiji Fukuda of the World Health Organization. “You don’t want another security front opening,” Fukuda told NBC News.
One reason Ebola got so bad so fast in West Africa was that the region was barely recovering from a series of civil wars and had little resembling a public health system. Only a few charities were working in Liberia when Ebola broke out.
“You don’t want another security front opening.”
“The Ebola outbreak highlights where we are vulnerable,” Fukuda said. “How are we going to go forward so we don’t have to deal with this in this way again? We are literally talking about the security of the region, the security implications for the rest of the world.”
Ebola is threatening the economies of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, with airlines canceling flights, companies pulling staff out and businesses unable to function. That, in turn, can affect the entire continent and eventually, the world.
“No nation can meet these challenges on its own,” Obama said. “Nobody is that isolated any more. Oceans don't protect you. Walls don't protect you.”
That’s why public health actions that may not look immediately urgent must go ahead, from vaccination campaigns to training programs for new health workers. “We're going to partner with countries to help boost immunization rates to stop the spread of preventable diseases. We'll work together to improve biological security so nations can store, transport, and work with dangerous pathogens safely,” Obama said.
“As we're often seeing in West Africa, often the greatest need in a crisis is personnel who are trained and ready to deploy. So we're going to keep working to strengthen the global networks of experts. When a crisis occurs, there are enough specialists standing by, ready to work.”
Obama also announced a challenge for inventors to come up with a better “bunny suit” to protect health workers.
“As many of you know firsthand, the protective gear that health workers wear can get incredibly hot, especially in humid environments. So today, we're issuing a challenge to inventors and entrepreneurs and businesses of the world to design better protective solutions for our health workers. If you design them, we will make them. We will pay for them. And our goal is to get them to the field in a matter of months to help the people working in West Africa right now,” he said.
“It is our moral obligation and it is in our national self-interests to see this work through, to help them, to help ourselves.”