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To Combat Ebola Outbreak, Health Officials Call For 'Drastic' Action


The World Health Organization, today, wrapped up an emergency meeting in West Africa on how to stop the growing Ebola outbreak there. The outbreak is now the largest ever recorded. The group Doctors Without Borders described the situation as out of control, and the World Health Organization is saying there needs to be drastic action to contain it. NPR's Jason Beaubien has been following the Ebola outbreak and monitoring this meeting in Ghana. He joins me now here in the studio. And, Jason, let's start with the current situation with the Ebola virus in West Africa. How many cases are we talking about, and is that number slowing?

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: We are now talking at over 750 Ebola cases. And unfortunately, it's not slowing. The disease comes on very quickly. People get a high fever, vomiting, joint pain. In some cases they get intense hemorrhaging, internal and external bleeding. And it spreads when someone comes in contact with the bodily fluids of someone who's sick. So often, you end up with health care providers or other caregivers being passed this disease from the initial victim. And right now we're talking about probably close to 500 deaths.

BLOCK: And that's across three countries in Africa.

BEAUBIEN: That's right, in West Africa. It started in Guinea in March, and it seemed like it was getting under control. By late May, it seemed like this was going to be over quite quickly. But then last month we got new cases, both in Sierra Leone and Liberia - very explosive spread, there. Quickly, there were over 100 cases in Liberia, more than 200 in Sierra Leone. And while it looks like it is slowing in Guinea, it certainly doesn't look that way in Sierra Leone or Liberia. And the fear, obviously, is that it could spread further in West Africa.

BLOCK: And that's led to this emergency meeting, convened by the World Health Organization, in Ghana. What's come out of that meeting?

BEAUBIEN: Well, they're trying to get all of these health ministers to get together and sort of work out some way to actually tackle this. They brought in people from the Congo and Uganda who have experience dealing with these in the past. But part of the problem is that this is the first time it's happened in West Africa. Also, it's quite a different outbreak. These past outbreaks have been very small. They've been centered in one particular place. This is spread out over hundreds of miles. And even while these are neighboring countries, the cases are not all right next to each other. They're actually spread out. Some of them are in urban areas. Some of them are rural. The health ministers are there. They're vowing that they're going to work on this. They're vowing a united front in tackling it. But it isn't exactly clear what's going to be new coming out of this conference.

BLOCK: And what are the main barriers to tackling Ebola, as they're talking about, in that region right now?

BEAUBIEN: Well, one of them is just the geography. Every time there is a new case then they have to send in doctors. They have to send in health professionals. They have to set up entirely new isolation units. They have to send in burial teams. They're sending in people to try to educate people in the community, do communication messaging, even just track down people who might have come in contact with one of the people who is sick. So every time you get a new case somewhere, they have to repeat that over and over again. But the other problem that the WHO is talking about is community resistance, they're calling it - basically rumors and fear because this is, after all, the first time this has been seen in West Africa.

BLOCK: What kind of rumors are they talking about? What's the root of that fear?

BEAUBIEN: Some people are saying that this disease comes from witchcraft, that it's a spell that's being cast on people. There're also rumors that it's being brought in by the health care workers who are coming in to actually try to treat it. And there have been some attacks on health care workers. Both - the Red Cross had an incident where one of their vehicles was surrounded by people with knives. Doctors Without Borders had to close a facility, for a little while, early on in this. You know, some people are actually running away when they think they've got the disease because they're afraid to go into one of these centers because a lot of people are not coming out of them alive. So this has allowed the disease to even spread farther. So there really is very much a communications problem going on at the moment, and that is one of the things they're trying to address.

BLOCK: OK, NPR's global health correspondent Jason Beaubien. Jason, thanks so much.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.


You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.