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Ebola Outbreak Worsens In West Africa


One topic on the agenda at the summit of African leaders is Ebola. The outbreak of that deadly disease is the largest on record. More than 1,300 people have fallen ill in West Africa and more than 700 have died. To bring us the latest on this is NPR's Nurith Aizenman.

Nurith, welcome.


WERTHEIMER: It sounds like this disease is far from under control and in fact, may be getting worse. Could you give us an update?

AIZENMAN: Sure. So the outbreak continues to be focused in three countries that all neighbor each other - Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. And what's really alarming is not just that so many people have been infected over such a large area, but that the outbreak seems to be worsening. In the last two weeks, there's been a surge of cases and the disease just seems to be moving back and forth across the border that these countries share, faster than the efforts to curb it.

So officials are now warning there's a real risk of this disease spiraling completely out of control with truly catastrophic consequences. And that's really what's led the governments of these countries and the international community to try to step up the response in recent days.

WERTHEIMER: What kind of stepping up are you talking about?

AIZENMAN: Liberia has closed schools and put nonessential government workers on a temporary leave, and they're also considering imposing quarantines.

Sierra Leone is deploying security forces to do house-to-house searches for infected people and they say they're also going to use their security forces to impose quarantines over epicenters of the disease, although it's still unclear what that's going to look like.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which already has people on the ground, says they're going to be sending at least 50 more disease control experts into the area.

And then, last Friday the director general of the World Health Organization, Dr. Margaret Chan, traveled to Guinea for a meeting with the leaders of the three countries to try to get a handle on this. She unveiled a $100 million plan for dealing with the outbreak. They're calling for hundreds of health workers from all over the world to come help out. Not just doctors and nurses, but also experts who can test for the disease and case managers. And officials say, getting that extra personnel is absolutely critical because these countries had a shortage of health workers to begin with. And then, a lot of the health workers who were caring for the Ebola patients at the start have become sick with the disease themselves now.

WERTHEIMER: We know that includes two American health workers. One of them arrived at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta on Saturday. There was considerable controversy about whether it would be possible to bring him home safely.

AIZENMAN: Yes. There was a fair amount of anxiety on social media about this. But it was a very high-tech transport operation. The aid worker, Dr. Kent Brantly, was lifted out of Liberia on a specially outfitted air ambulance jet - picture a cargo plane with a sealed-off plastic tent inside that's specially ventilated and pressurized - and he was within that chamber the whole time. And then, when he landed they outfitted him with a hazmat suit which he wore for the ambulance ride to the hospital, and he's now being treated in a separate special containment unit that the hospital has for people with highly infectious diseases. Dr. Brantly was able to walk into the hospital on his own power and his wife was able to see him yesterday and he's reportedly improving. The other American aid worker, Nancy Writebol, is expected to be flown in tomorrow and as of the last report, she's in serious but stable condition.

WERTHEIMER: So happens next?

AIZENMAN: Well, there's a key meeting that the World Health Organization will be holding with Ebola experts this coming Wednesday and Thursday. They're essentially going to be considering whether to declare the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern. That's a formal designation that if it's declared, then makes it possible for the WHO to recommend truly extraordinary measures; things like restricting travel or trade in the region.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Nurith Aizenman with the latest on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Thank you very much.

AIZENMAN: Glad to do it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.