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US plans to provide several million dollars for Ebola outbreak in Congo

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Health workers wear protective equipment as they prepare to tend to suspected Ebola patients Saturday at Bikoro hospital, the epicenter of the Ebola outbreak in Congo. (Mark Naftalin/AFP/UNICEF)

The United States is planning to provide several million dollars to support the global response to the growing Ebola outbreak in Congo, officials said Friday. Details are being finalized, and an announcement is expected early next week.

The outbreak, the most serious since the 2014 West Africa epidemic that killed more than 11,000 people, does not yet meet the criteria to be declared an international public health emergency, the World Health Organization said Friday. But the WHO, in a statement, said “a vigorous response” from the international community is needed to prevent a sharp escalation in the outbreak.

The discovery this week of at least one case in a densely populated port city on the eastern bank of the Congo River has raised concerns about the potential for rapid spread of the disease, which had previously been limited to a remote area in the rain forest of Congo’s Equateur province. To date, there have been 45 cases, and 25 of those people have died. More than 530 individuals may have been in contact with infected people and are being monitored, and they may be candidates for the first round of an experimental vaccine.

WHO officials estimate that outbreak-control efforts will cost $26 million over the next three months. So far, the WHO has received commitments for about $9 million.

“So we are about 17 million short,” Peter Salama, the WHO’s lead official in charge of epidemic response, said during a news conference in Geneva on Friday. That may sound like a considerable amount, he said, but not compared with the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, which cost between $3 billion and $4 billion. “So this is a relatively small investment to stamp out a small outbreak quickly, for a major gain in lives saved, but also in dollars saved,” he said.

Some global health experts have expressed concern privately that the U.S. response would be minimized given President Trump’s disparaging and isolationist comments about Ebola during the 2014 epidemic. He complained about two sick American health workers being flown back to the United States for treatment and said they should not be brought into the country.

But the U.S. response so far appears to be appropriate for this outbreak, experts say.

“I don’t see any evidence that the president’s former comments about Ebola have impacted the U.S. response,” one global health expert, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly, said.

Thomas Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said: “My sense is that while they have not been too public with what they are doing yet, they are in fact doing a lot and will be sending teams into the field as per the requests of DRC and WHO.”

On Friday, the U.S. Agency for International Development said that it has provided an initial $1 million to the WHO to combat the outbreak. Several million additional dollars are expected to be announced next week to support the effort, according to U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because details are being worked out.

These funds would be separate from the $252 million in unused funds remaining from U.S. reaction to the 2014 Ebola epidemic that the administration wants Congress to cut.

USAID is also sending 2,000 personal-protective-equipment kits, laboratory materials for diagnostic testing and other technical support. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has already mobilized its country office in Congo, which includes several experts who had extensive experience handling the 2014 West Africa epidemic. The CDC has also assembled a team of about a dozen experts who are planning to deploy to Congo within days. Their expertise includes infection control, contact tracing and emergency operations management.

One of the agency’s senior Ebola experts, Pierre Rollin, said in an interview this week that multiple CDC teams are preparing to deploy if needed, with each shift in the Congo expected to last four to six weeks.

“We have intensified our support to the response,” Anne Schuchat, the CDC’s principal deputy director, said in an interview Friday. Because the WHO and Congolese officials have responded quickly so far, the CDC has not yet needed to send in large teams. But the next few days will be critical, she said, to prevent the virus from spreading to another country, and for personnel on the ground in the outbreak areas to keep up with contact tracing. But unlike the West Africa epidemic, she said, “this is not thousands of new cases, which is what we were dealing with in the [West African] capitals.”

The National Security Council, which last week lost its top official responsible for leading the U.S. response to pandemics and split up the global-health-security team he oversaw, is managing the overall response in coordination with the CDC and USAID, a spokesperson said.

Read more:

Disease “superspreaders” accounted for nearly two-thirds of Ebola cases in West Africa epidemic, study says 

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