World's top experts warn: Stop the Ebola panic

An Ebola prevention drill at a port in Liberia's capital Monrovia. Experts said the outbreak will not end until people calm down and help their infected neighbours instead of fleeing from them.
An Ebola prevention drill at a port in Liberia's capital Monrovia. Experts said the outbreak will not end until people calm down and help their infected neighbours instead of fleeing from them.PHOTO: AFP

Washington - With the outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome, or Sars, in 2003, Taiwan's news media was so alarmist that the government finally ordered every television channel to devote two minutes, three times a day, to a calm presentation of facts by Dr Lee Ming-liang, a retired health minister in charge of the task force dealing with the disease.

"Dr Lee is very respected. And he speaks an authentic Taiwanese dialect. Whatever channel you turned to, there he was. That was very useful," said Dr Steve Kuo, who coordinated Taiwan's Sars task force.

Unusual tactics and inventive thinking like this will be needed to beat West Africa's Ebola outbreak, according to 10 of the world's top experts in disease eradication. Ten leaders of the fights against smallpox, polio, Sars, rinderpest, Guinea worm and other diseases were interviewed for their views on how best to fight the outbreak.

About 3,000 Africans have been infected and about half have died. The World Health Organisation has warned that infections could rise to 20,000.

Leadership must be imposed, the 10 experts said, perhaps with a West African in charge. Donors must commit at least US$500 million (S$624 million).

And a new strategy is needed, with the first priority being to stop the panic caused by imprisoning residents of the affected countries behind barbed wire and roadblocks.

The outbreak will not end, they argued, until average citizens calm down and help their infected neighbours instead of fleeing from them.

"Liberians are not going to be saved by internationals coming in. They're going to be saved by Liberians," said Dr Bruce Aylward, one of the leaders of the drive to eliminate polio and an author of the health organisation's Ebola-fighting plan introduced last week.

The experts agreed on many basic principles. All, for example, were sure the outbreak could be stopped without experimental drugs or vaccines.

None expected it to take less than six months.

All said that Western countries needed to help generously, especially those with long ties to affected nations: the United States to Liberia, Britain to Sierra Leone and France to Guinea.

Their militaries may be useful, as long as they only deliver supplies, set up field hospitals, provide electricity and communications - and avoid anything that involves brandishing weapons, including enforcing quarantines.

The experts were universally appalled at the sight of rural areas hemmed by roadblocks and a slum in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, with barbed wire that made residents believe they were being locked in to die; they were even more appalled that soldiers used truncheons and bullets during what was supposed to be a public health effort.

To prevent panic, respected leaders must quell rumours, as Dr Lee did in Taiwan during the Sars outbreak.

The experts acknowledge that West Africa is not Taiwan; there are nearly 100 tribal languages, literacy is low and TVs rare. But the key is to get trusted local leaders like chiefs, clerics, midwives and traditional healers to do the job, they added.

And Ebola survivors "should be publicised," one expert said, "so people understand that they don't have to die if they come in for care."

New York Times