Step up guard against Ebola threat

The Health Ministry is taking additional precautionary measures for Ebola, even though it believes the disease poses a low public health risk here. There is little travel to and from western Africa, the epicentre of the outbreak, and contagion risks are lower. Ebola is not like the Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) that has surfaced in several countries lately or like the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) which brought Singapore to its knees in 2003.

The differences can at once ease fears and inspire dread. Contagious Mers, Sars and influenza viruses are borne by droplets from a victim's cough that escape into the air and land on surfaces. Whereas Ebola travels only through direct contact with a sufferer's bodily fluids, like blood, vomit or faeces. Still, there are unsurprising reasons why Ebola virus has been depicted as an exceptional predator - its high mortality rate of up to 90 per cent and the internal and external bleeding that can afflict some. Dramatised in the 1995 box-office hit Outbreak, there is no approved vaccine or other medicine that is meant specifically for the treatment of Ebola haemorrhagic fever which can take up to a month to kill victims.

Commonly associated with tropical African regions, Ebola, like related Lassa fever, might be thought to have little international importance. But this is the world's worst outbreak of Ebola in the nearly four-decade history of the scourge, killing over 900 so far in four African countries, with one case suspected in Saudi Arabia. Thus, it deserves greater global attention. The states affected have a dearth of skilled health- care workers and weak health systems, already strained by sub-Saharan Africa's disproportionate share of global diseases.

To tame pandemic disease, help is needed in a number of vital areas - specialist support, clinical supplies, public health surveillance, and infection control. But notwithstanding Ebola, Mers and H7N9 influenza, the World Health Organisation (WHO) is shifting resources away from infectious diseases - a budgetary hangover of the reforms it underwent following its financial crisis four years ago. Outbreak and crisis response work, for example, has been hit by a hefty spending cut of 51 per cent.

Steps taken so far to curb Ebola have been described as "woefully inadequate" by WHO director-general, Dr Margaret Chan. With the disease "moving faster than our efforts to control it", more needs to be done to tackle this public health emergency by member states. Given that many might view the threat as a distant one, what will be critical is a recognition that a coordinated global response is the more efficacious way of meeting the challenge of deadly infectious diseases.