Congressional Hearing Takes Closer Look at Ebola Response

As the African Ebola outbreak continued to spread across West Africa, infecting thousands of people (including at least three Americans so far), the US House of Representatives held a hearing this week to discuss the country's response to the deadly disease.

As the African Ebola outbreak continued to spread across West Africa, infecting thousands of people (including at least three Americans so far), the US House of Representatives held a hearing this week to discuss the country’s response to the deadly disease.

Under the direction of Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), the House Foreign Affairs and Global Health Committee heard testimony from Thomas Frieden, MD, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as from representatives from the US State Department and US Agency for International Development.

In a statement summarizing the hearings issued by his office, Smith said that with two of the infected Americans being transported back to the country for treatment it was time for a serious look at how the government was responding to a virus which has killed more than 1000 people.

“Ebola had been thought to be limited to isolated areas where it could be contained,” Smith noted during the hearing. “We know now that is no longer true. We need to take seriously the effort to devise more effective means of addressing this and all neglected tropical diseases.”

Smith’s home state of New Jersey is one of several states in which there have been false alarms over patients being hospitalized with potential Ebola symptoms. Although in each case the patient proved to not have the deadly virus, the congressman said it was proof that steps need to be taken in addition to the plans already in place to treat the patients while protecting the people working to treat them.

While Smith cited successes in treating Kent Brantley, MD, and Nancy Writebol with the experimental medication ZMapp, he said there is much more work to be done in places where the problem is most severe. “Some of the leading doctors in these countries have died treating Ebola Victims,” he noted. “The non-governmental medical personnel who are there say they feel besieged — not only because they are among the only medical personnel treating this exponentially spreading disease, but also because they are under suspicion by some people in these countries who are unfamiliar with this disease and fear that doctors who treat the disease may have brought it with them.”

For his part, Frieden said the CDC does not view Ebola as a “significant danger to the United States,” because of its difficult method of transmission, but added that steps were already in place to protect the people in hospitals around the country.

“We know how to stop Ebola with strict infection control practices which are already in widespread use in American hospitals, and by stopping it at the source in Africa.”

Calling the current outbreak “the biggest and most complex Ebola outbreak ever documented,” Frieden said it is not an insurmountable challenge to the health care community.

“Stopping outbreaks where they occur is the most effective and least expensive way to protect people’s health,” he said. “While this tragic outbreak reminds us that there is still much to be done, we know that sustained commitment and the application of the best evidence and practices will lead us to a safer, healthier world.”

One of the people who provided compelling testimony during the hearing was Ken Isaacs, Vice President of International Programs and Government Relations of Samaritan’s Purse. The two infected Americans treated with ZMapp were helping treat Ebola patients in Africa as part of the organization’s efforts and it was with the help of the National Institutes of Health that they were able to receive the experimental treatment and be transported back to the country in a specialized aircraft.

“As an organization we have worked to contain the growing Ebola crisis in Liberia and were devastated to discover that two of our personnel had contracted the deadly virus while trying to assist others,” he said. “The support that the United States government has shown to our organization is tremendous, and Samaritan’s Purse thanks you for helping us bring the two of them home in the face of incredible challenges.”

Calling the outbreak, “uncontained and out of control,” Isaacs said, “A broader coordinated intervention of the international community is the only thing that will slow the size and speed and spread of the disease.”

Without that intervention, “The global impact of Ebola has yet to be fully realized. In the developing world, it has the potential to destabilize entire countries while creating widespread and even regional insecurity. It will have a devastating effect on transportation hubs, economies, healthcare systems and governments,” said Isaacs.

Isaacs said his group has encountered overwhelming numbers of people needing treatment while working in African countries, as well as cultural issues that have made providing treatment and sanitary conditions even more difficult. In Liberia, he noted, it is tradition to wash and kiss the corpse of a person soon after they have died, which is also when they are most infectious.

“Every contact with it will result in another infection,” he reported. “This practice is so strongly held that our staff has been faced with violence when the ritual was threatened by attempted collection of a corpse for sanitized burial.”

In concluding his remarks Isaacs noted, “The fight against Ebola has to focus on the concept of containment.” He added, “The virus, regardless of where it came from, now resides on planet Earth and it has the capability to travel at the speed of an airplane. Until there is a vaccine or a cure, we can only fight it by containing it, treating its victims, practicing proper hygiene, and educating.”