UN’s top anti-Ebola official in West Africa says new cases poorly tracked, harming efforts

Authorities are having trouble figuring out how many more people are getting Ebola in Liberia and Sierra Leone and where the hot spots are in those countries, harming efforts to get control of the raging, deadly outbreak, the U.N.’s top Ebola official in West Africa said Tuesday.

KAMPALA, Uganda — Authorities are having trouble figuring out how many more people are getting Ebola in Liberia and Sierra Leone and where the hot spots are in those countries, harming efforts to get control of the raging, deadly outbreak, the U.N.’s top Ebola official in West Africa said Tuesday.

“The challenge is good information, because information helps tell us where the disease is, how it’s spreading and where we need to target our resources,” Anthony Banbury told The Associated Press by phone from the Ghanaian capital of Accra, where the U.N. Mission for Ebola Emergency Response, or UNMEER, is based.

Health experts say the key to stopping Ebola is breaking the chain of transmission by tracing and isolating those who have had contact with Ebola patients or victims. Health care workers can’t do that if they don’t know where new cases are emerging.

“And unfortunately, we don’t have good data from a lot of areas. We don’t know exactly what is happening,” said Banbury, the chief of UNMEER.

Banbury, who visited the three most affected countries last week, said it was “heartbreaking” to see families torn apart by Ebola as they struggle to care for sick loves ones while also hoping to avoid infection. He said he is hoping for a new approach in Liberia as the U.N. and its partners work to improve the capacity of communities to safely bury victims.

Over the past week, Banbury met with the presidents of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, where the vast majority of the more than 10,000 Ebola cases have occurred, the U.N. said.

Meanwhile, the president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, said the three countries need at least 5,000 more health workers to effectively fight the epidemic.

Kim said Tuesday that he is worried about where those health workers can be found given the widespread fear of Ebola. Quarantining health workers returning to their home countries — as some U.S. states are doing — could also hurt recruitment efforts. The World Bank president spoke alongside U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and African Union Chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where the AU is headquartered.

As more countries close their borders with or severely restrict travel from the affected countries, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf pleaded Tuesday with the world to not turn its back on those suffering.

“We’d just like the international community to continue to see this as a global threat, that stigmatization, exclusion, restriction is not the appropriate response to this,” she said.

She spoke alongside Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. who is also touring the worst-hit countries this week. Power reiterated that the best way to keep Americans safe is to help the West African countries fight the disease.

“We’re not just looking to bend the curve, we’re looking to end the curve,” she added.

Although Western governments and aid groups have stepped up Ebola aid in recent months, the U.N. says more support is needed. The U.N.’s target is to quickly isolate 70 per cent of Ebola cases and to achieve a similar percentage for safe Ebola burials.

“They are extremely ambitious (goals), given the geographical spread of the disease, the numbers of people infected, the very poor information on exactly where those infected are and what the transmission patterns are,” Banbury said. “The three things we need the most are people, supplies and money. The most critical right now are people, health workers in particular, trained health care workers . but also people who can manage these Ebola treatment facilities.”

Dlamini-Zuma said African Union states have pledged to send more than 2,000 health care workers to West Africa. She did not say when the workers would arrive.

France will release an extra 20 million euros ($25 million) to support French efforts to stem the spread of Ebola in Guinea, the French presidency said Tuesday, bringing to 90 million euros the amount France has given to the crisis so far.

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