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Obama Urges Countries, Organizations to Do More to Fight Ebola

By Cheryl Pellerin
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

WASHINGTON, Sept. 25, 2014 – The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is a health crisis that threatens regional and global security, and if it’s not stopped, it could cause a humanitarian catastrophe across the region, President Barack Obama said today at a United Nations meeting on the epidemic.

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Volunteers in Guinea make their way door-to-door, sharing information about Ebola. These volunteers are able to communicate in four languages. At each dwelling, people gather to hear information about Ebola. The volunteers are wearing shirts designating their Red Cross affiliation. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention photo

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

“In an era where regional crises can quickly become global threats,” he added, “stopping Ebola is in the interest of all of us.”

The president told of his visit last week to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, which he said is mounting the largest international response in its history. While there, he announced that in addition to its civilian response, the United States would establish a military command in Liberia to support civilian efforts across the region.

Today, he said, that command is up and running. “Our commander is on the ground in Monrovia, and our teams are working as fast as they can to move in personnel, equipment and supplies,” he added. “We’re working with Senegal to stand up an air bridge to get health workers and medical supplies into West Africa faster. We’re setting up a field hospital that will be staffed by personnel from the U.S. Public Health Service, and a training facility where [we’ll] train thousands of health workers from around the world.”

The president said the command is distributing supplies and information kits to hundreds of thousands of families, and with partners such as the U.S. Agency for International Development and others, it will quickly build new treatment units across Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, where thousands will be able to receive care.

Countries and organizations have stepped up

In the past week, Obama told his audience, more countries and organizations have stepped up their efforts, and so has the United Nations.

“Mr. Secretary-General, the new U.N. Mission for Ebola Emergency Response that you announced last week will bring all of the U.N.’s resources to bear in fighting the epidemic. We thank you for your leadership,” he said to Ban Ki-moon.

Obama called the progress encouraging, but said organizations and countries are not doing enough.

International organizations have to move faster, cut through red tape and mobilize partners on the ground, he said. More nations need to contribute critical assets and capabilities like air transport, medical evacuation, health care workers, equipment or treatment, he added. More foundations can tap into their networks of support to raise funds and awareness, the president said.

Businesses, especially those that already have a presence in the region, can quickly provide their own expertise and resources, from access to critical supply chains to telecommunications. And citizens of all nations can educate themselves about the crisis, contribute to relief efforts, and call on their leaders to act.

“Everybody can do something,” Obama said. “That’s why we’re here today.”

And even as the world responds to the urgent threat of Ebola, he added, nations must do more to prevent, detect and respond to future biological threats before they erupt into full-blown crises.

Tomorrow at the White House, Obama said, “I will host 44 nations to advance our Global Health Security Agenda, and we are interested in working with any country that shares this commitment.”

Global Health Security Agenda

In February, 29 partner nations launched the Global Health Security Agenda, or GHSA, with the World Health Organization, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Organization of Animal Health, and the European Union. Today, the GHSA has engaged 44 nations and many international organizations.

Joining the president at the White House tomorrow will be Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell, National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Lisa Monaco,.

Stopping Ebola is a priority for the United States, Obama said. “This is as important a national security priority for my team as anything else that's out there,” he added. “We'll do our part, we will continue to lead, but this has to be a priority for everybody else.”

To his fellow leaders from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, to the people of West Africa and to the heroic health workers on the ground in some cases putting themselves at risk, the president said, “I want you to know that you are not alone. We’re working urgently to get you the help you need. And we will not stop, we will not relent, until we halt this epidemic once and for all.”

Emerging biological threats

In advance of the formal GHSA meeting, experts met today in Washington at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health to discuss the GHSA and the nongovernmental perspective on addressing emerging and evolving biological threats.

Among the participants was Andrew C. Weber, assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs, who spoke about biosecurity and its role in preventing biological attacks that could cause injuries and deaths.

“Most recently, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula put out a call to brothers with degrees in chemistry and microbiology to develop weapons of mass destruction,” Weber told the audience.

This network of death, he said, using Obama’s term for the terrorist group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, has the intent and has tried to obtain biological weapons capabilities.

An opportunity to prevent bioterrorism

“We’ve seen them fail in their efforts to obtain virulent starter cultures of Bacillus anthracis [the bacterium that causes anthrax],” Weber added, “so that tells me that we have an opportunity to prevent bioterrorism attacks by looking at the supply side, by doing a better job of consolidating dangerous pathogen collections to the minimal number that’s needed.”

Consolidating such pathogens into fewer, safer and more secure laboratories, he said, “is something we need to implement over the next five years of the Global Health Security Agenda as an important part of the work plan.”

Any storage facility or containment laboratory is potentially a strategic weapon in the hands of terrorist groups or even rogue individuals, Weber said, and everyone has a responsibility and an obligation to prevent terrorists from getting access to the dangerous pathogens they need to develop weapons.

The technology revolution in diagnostics is making it possible to move away from large fixed laboratories to point-of-care diagnostics, he said, adding that culturing bacteria and viruses is slow and dangerous.

“Culture-independent diagnostics are better and faster, and if we link those to information technology we can have that real-time global biosurveillance capability that the world needs to prevent the next Ebola crisis,” he said.

National and regional biosecurity

Weber said a pillar of the GHSA is to have national and regional biosecurity systems. “So much of what's done around the world is individual-facility-based, and that's not good enough,” he added.

Reading a section of the five-year national target from the GHSA’s biosafety and biosecurity action package, Weber described “a whole-of-government national biosafety and biosecurity system in place, ensuring that especially dangerous pathogens are identified … secured and monitored in a minimal number of facilities according to best practices.”

Weber said the intent of GHSA is to get different sectors -– health, law enforcement, in some cases defense and others -– working together on the problem.

Multidimensional challenges

“Tomorrow [at the White House GHSA meeting], we're gathering with home affairs ministers, health ministers and national security advisers, Interpol [and others],” he said. “There are multidimensional challenges that require a whole-of-government approach -- it's not just WHO and the Organization for International Epizootics that will be on hand.”

Weber said he’s proud of what South Korea has been doing in this area. He visited in August with senior members of the FBI, CDC, HHS, the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We worked across the table with Australia with 18 different agencies of the Republic of Korea that have to be involved, including their Korean CDC,” he added, “which traditionally wasn't even known to their security and law enforcement community, on a bioterrorism tabletop exercise series called Able Response.”

They’ve made a lot of progress, Weber said.

“We learned the hard way in our country, with the [anthrax] attacks [and] especially after 9/11, that these challenges require strong interagency participation, planning, exercising and preparedness,” he added. “And that's the model that the Global Health Security Agenda intends to reinforce.”

(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter @PellerinDoDNews)

Contact Author

Andrew C. Weber

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