Countries must step up efforts to tackle the spread of Ebola in west Africa by providing more troops, funding and medical staff to prevent it from becoming the “definitive humanitarian disaster of our generation”, Oxfam has warned.
The charity said the world had less than two months to curb the deadly virus, which has killed 4,500 people, but noted a crippling shortfall in military personnel to provide logistical support across the countries worst affected – Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Its stark warning came as Britain and the US said the international community will be responsible for a substantial loss of life in west Africa and a greater threat across the world unless the financial and medical response to Ebola was greatly increased. The US secretary of state, John Kerry, said a failure to respond could turn Ebola into “a scourge like HIV or polio”.
Oxfam said that while Britain was leading the way in Europe’s response to the epidemic, countries which have failed to commit troops – including Italy and Spain – were “in danger of costing lives”.
Rare call for military support
The charity said it was extremely rare to call for military intervention but troops were desperately needed to build treatment centres, provide flights and offer engineering and logistical support.
Its plea for extra resources came after the World Health Organisation (WHO) admitted mishandling the early stages of the Ebola outbreak in west Africa.
More doctors and nurses were required to staff the treatment centres and there was a significant shortfall in funding to support the emergency humanitarian response, the agency warned.
Oxfam has called for EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday to follow the UK’s lead in responding to the Ebola crisis after the country committed £125m – the highest sum after the US.
David Cameron wrote to the European council president, Herman Van Rompuy, to call on EU leaders to agree at a summit next week to donate an extra €1bn (£790m) and to despatch 2,000 European clinicians and workers to the region within a month.
Eye of a storm
Mark Goldring, Oxfam’s chief executive, said: “We are in the eye of a storm. We cannot allow Ebola to immobilise us in fear, but instead we must move toward a common mission to stop it from getting worse.
“Countries that have failed to commit troops, doctors and enough funding are in danger of costing lives. The speed and scale of the intervention needed is unprecedented. Only a concerted and coordinated global effort will stop the spread.
“Oxfam is concentrating its work in Sierra Leone and Liberia on helping to prevent the spread of Ebola, through clean water and sanitation provision and public education.
“Providing treatment is vital, however reducing the spread of infection is equally important, which is why we need the massive intervention of personnel and funding immediately.”
An Oxfam spokeswoman added: “The Ebola crisis could become the definitive humanitarian disaster of our generation. The world was unprepared to deal with it. It is extremely rare for Oxfam to call for military intervention to provide logistical support in a humanitarian emergency.
“However, the military’s logistical expertise and capacity to respond quickly in great numbers is vital.
“The EU can help put the world back on track in the fight against Ebola by boosting military and medical personnel, committing life-saving funds and speeding up the process so that pledges are delivered rapidly in order to prevent, protect and cure people.”
In addition to the extra €1bn, Cameron wants EU leaders to agree to dispatch at least 2,000 workers to west Africa within the next month, to increase co-ordination of screening at European ports, and to improve coordination of flights to west Africa to fly frontline health staff to the region. Britain believes Germany is starting to respond, though it considers this has been slow.
The US and the UK have committed 4,000 and 750 troops respectively to help tackle Ebola, Oxfam said.
But the charity warned only some of these troops are on the ground, with most of the US contingent not due until 1 November.
Italy, Australia and Spain have committed no troops, despite Spain having a specialist medical expertise unit in its military, Oxfam said.
Germany has committed to military supply flights and plans a military hospital in the region, while France has some military staff in Guinea where personnel are reportedly building a hospital, it added.
A spokeswoman for Oxfam said it understands the “tremendous logistical challenges” but urged military groups to look how their mobilisation can be “both massively strengthened and sped up”.
When a fund was set up by the UN secretary general to fight Ebola in September, it was estimated almost $1bn (£620m) was needed for the next six months. To date, only half of this amount has been reached, Oxfam said.
The charity has also issued an appeal for £22m to triple its emergency response in Liberia and Sierra Leone but said it was “nowhere near this target yet”.
The number of Ebola cases is doubling about every 20 days, Oxfam said. The WHO has put the death rate from this outbreak at 70% and has warned that there could be 10,000 new cases a week in west Africa by December.