Ebola could become disaster of our generation, says aid agency Oxfam

A woman queues for food at a World Food Programme distribution point in Freetown on Oct 18, 2014. Aid agency Oxfam said Ebola could become the "definitive humanitarian disaster of our generation", as US President Barack Obama urged against "hyst
A woman queues for food at a World Food Programme distribution point in Freetown on Oct 18, 2014. Aid agency Oxfam said Ebola could become the "definitive humanitarian disaster of our generation", as US President Barack Obama urged against "hysteria" in the face of the growing crisis. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (AFP) - Aid agency Oxfam said Ebola could become the "definitive humanitarian disaster of our generation", as US President Barack Obama urged against "hysteria" in the face of the growing crisis.

Oxfam, which works in the two worst-hit countries - Liberia and Sierra Leone - on Saturday called for more troops, funding and medical staff to be sent to tackle the west African epicentre of the epidemic.

Chief executive Mark Goldring warned that the world was "in the eye of a storm". "We cannot allow Ebola to immobilise us in fear, but... countries that have failed to commit troops, doctors and enough funding are in danger of costing lives," he said.

The worst-ever outbreak of the deadly virus has so far killed more than 4,500 people, mainly in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, but isolated cases have now begun to appear in Europe and the United States.

"The Ebola crisis could become the definitive humanitarian disaster of our generation," a spokesperson for the British-based charity said as it appealed for EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg on Monday to do more.

Obama's warning about hysteria came a day after the World Bank said the battle against the disease was being lost and as the US president named an "Ebola czar" to coordinate Washington's response.

In Sierra Leone, Defence Minister Alfred Paolo Conteh was put in charge of the fight against the disease as the death toll there rose to 1,200. In a statement, President Ernest Bai Koroma said the defence minister would "with immediate effect" head a new national Ebola response centre.

A global UN appeal for nearly US$1 billion (S$1.27 million) to fight the spread of the disease has so far fallen short, but a spokesman told AFP more money was coming in daily.

Out of US$988 million requested a month ago, the UN said on Saturday that US$385.9 million had already been given by a slew of governments and agencies, with a further US$225.8 million promised.

"It has been encouraging to see the amount and the speed with which these amounts have been committed," said Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN's humanitarian office (OCHA). But the total was still some way off, Laerke said.

"Nobody's smiling in this crisis, so I'm not going to go out and clap my hands and say everything is going fine, because it's not," he told AFP.

- WHO to review response -

Meantime, the World Health Organisation (WHO) promised that it would publish a full review of its handling of the Ebola crisis once the outbreak was under control, in response to a leaked document that appeared to acknowledge it had failed to do enough.

The WHO said in a statement that it would not comment on an internal document cited in an Associated Press story on Friday, saying it was a first draft that had not been fact-checked and was "part of an on-going analysis of our response".

"We cannot divert our limited resources from the urgent response to do a detailed analysis of the past response. That review will come, but only after this outbreak is over," the organisation said.

The WHO has been widely criticised for its slow response to the epidemic and its early reassurances, despite repeated public warnings from the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres, which was leading the fight against the virus on the ground.

- Panic growing -

As panic and Ebola scares spread worldwide, Obama called for patience and perspective. "This is a serious disease, but we can't give in to hysteria orfear - because that only makes it harder to get people the accurate information they need. We have to be guided by the science," Obama said.

Friday saw a number of false alarms in the United States as fears grew, including at the Pentagon, where an entrance was closed after a woman vomited in a parking lot. US authorities later found no evidence that she had contracted Ebola.

Meanwhile, US media reported on overzealous action taken by some worried communities, including a group of Mississippi parents who pulled their kids from school because the principal had recently travelled to Zambia - a southern African country far from the Ebola crisis in west Africa.

The United States - where a Liberian man died from Ebola on Oct 8 and two American nurses who treated him have tested positive - was not seeing an "outbreak" or "epidemic", Obama stressed.

More "isolated" cases in the country were possible, he conceded. "But we know how to wage this fight."

The US president played down the idea of a travel ban from west Africa. "Trying to seal off an entire region of the world - if that were even possible - could actually make the situation worse."

- 'Losing the battle' -

Obama's call for calm was in stark contrast to World Bank chief Jim Yong Kim, who warned on Friday that "we are losing the battle". He blamed a lack of international solidarity in efforts to stem the epidemic.

"Certain countries are only worried about their own borders," he told reporters in Paris, as leaders in Washington and beyond grapple for a coordinated response to the outbreak.

Airports in several countries were taking passengers' temperatures in a bid to detect Ebola carriers, although experts have expressed doubts about the effectiveness of the checks.

France on Saturday started carrying out health checks on Air France passengers arriving from Guinea, where the epidemic began in December, while a cabin crew union called for a halt to flights from Conakry altogether.

One 40-year-old passenger was taken to a Paris hospital with a suspected fever but officials later said she was not suffering from vomiting or diarrhoea.

Meanwhile, a woman was taken to a military hospital close to Paris on Saturday suffering from abdominal pain and fever, but there was no confirmation of her condition.

The United States, Britain and Canada have already launched screenings at airports for passengers from Ebola-hit zones. The EU is reviewing the matter.

As of Oct 14, 4,555 people have died from Ebola out of a total of 9,216 cases registered in seven countries, the WHO said.