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Window to control Ebola rapidly closing, CDC director warns

By Sabriya Rice
Posted: September 2, 2014 - 3:45 pm ET

The window of opportunity for controlling the Ebola outbreak in West Africa is rapidly closing, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Tuesday. Teams of individuals with specialized and technical experience are urgently needed on the ground, said the agency's director, Dr. Tom Frieden, who returned this week from a visit to several nations where the disease is spreading quickly.

“The outbreak is so overwhelming that what it requires now is an overwhelming response,” he said. “As long as Ebola is spreading anywhere, all of us need to be concerned.”

The response so far, he said, has not been sufficient. Despite tremendous efforts, the number of cases continues to increase and is now increasing rapidly, said Frieden in a news briefing. That number will likely grow over the next few weeks, he anticipated, based on his visits to Guinea, Sierra Leon and Liberia. “The virus is moving faster than anyone anticipated,” he said.

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Three key items are needed to help control the outbreak, the CDC said. People are needed with technical expertise—not just physicians, but nurses, rapid response teams and hospital management—who can stay up to three months in the countries. Specialists are encouraged to reach out to groups like Doctors Without Borders, the CDC Foundation and UNICEF, which are working with limited resources.

Frieden also mentioned the need for specific resources, like beds and medical supplies, and called for a global coordinated approach to address the disease. Global collaborations to date, which include several nations setting up testing laboratories, and international companies donating oil and other resources, are welcome, the CDC said. But efforts need to be quickly scaled up.

Ebola spreads when a person comes into direct contact with a sick person's blood or body fluids, according to the CDC. Though the virus is spreading widely, the method of transmission remains consistent, Frieden said. Those most in danger in this particular outbreak, according to Frieden, are caregivers of patients with the disease, and those who may come into contact with bodily fluids though unsafe burial practices.

An American doctor at a missionary hospital in Liberia has tested positive for the Ebola virus, according to Charlotte, N.C.-based charity group SIM USA Tuesday. The organization said it is not known specifically how the doctor contracted the virus. He was working with obstetrics patients, and not Ebola patients who are treated in an Ebola isolation unit at a separate facility.

During Tuesday's press conference, Frieden alluded to the potential risk that the longer Ebola spreads, the more likely it can mutate and become easier to transmit. “That risk may be very low, but it's probably not zero,” he said.

An estimated 1,552 deaths have been reported from the disease by the health ministries of Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, according to the most recent estimates from the World Health Organization. The number of probable and confirmed cases in the current outbreak is estimated at 3,069.

HHS announced today that the development of drugs to treat Ebola will be accelerated under a new contract from the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response. This includes support for the development and manufacturing of ZMapp, an experimental treatment that has proven effective in mice and monkeys.

But while the drug has received a lot of attention, Dr. Nicole Lurie of HHS said there is still limited data on its safety and efficacy. ZMapp is one of several treatments under development for the disease, the HHS said, but even the most advanced potential therapies and vaccines are just entering early clinical trials.

Follow Sabriya Rice on Twitter: @MHSRice

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