CONAKRY (Reuters) - Guinea plans to fight its deadly Ebola outbreak by drafting graduating medical students for national service and enlisting retired doctors and nurses, said Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, during a visit to West Africa to see how the global response is failing to stop the deadly disease.
Power, who will also visit Sierra Leone and Liberia, said she had a “very robust” discussion with Guinea’s President Alpha Conde on Sunday about the way forward and that Conde has “tremendous impatience ... wholly appropriate to the cause.”
Conde told Power of ambitious plans to increase the number of Ebola Treatment Units (ETUs) across the country.
“But it’s a real mystery as to where the healthcare workers are going to come from to staff those ETUs,” Power told Reuters.
“So he described his own recruitment drive within Guinea in order to get medical students as they come out of their training to go right into Ebola treatment as a kind of national service, also to bring all the retired doctors and nurses back and conscripting them,” she said.
The three West African countries are bearing the brunt of the worst outbreak of the hemorrhagic fever on record, which the World Health Organization (WHO) says has killed nearly 5,000 people. A small number of cases have also been reported in Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, Spain and the United States.
“We are not on track right now to bend the curve,” Power told Reuters. “I will take what I know and I learn and obviously provide it to President Obama, who’s got world leaders now on speed dial on this issue.”
“Hopefully the more specific we can be in terms of what the requirements are and what other countries could usefully do, the more resources we can attract,” she said.
The United Nations said last month almost $1 billion was needed to fight Ebola for the next six months. According to the U.N. Financial Tracking Service, nearly $500 million has been committed and $280 million in non-binding pledges made.
“As we have seen, along with Spain, it is not a virus that is going to remain contained within these three affected countries if we don’t deal with it at its source,” Power said.
Aid groups on the ground said more doctors, nurses and treatment centers were needed. Ebola patients were being turned away due to a lack of beds and were usually cared for at home, where they risked infecting more people, according to aid workers.
Power also met with aid and other groups as well as leaders of the Muslim and Catholic communities.
According to the Africa Governance Initiative (AGI), even if existing international commitments are met by December, there could be a shortage of over 6,000 beds across Sierra Leone and Guinea.
Nearly half of the beds currently planned in the three countries will lack the medical staff needed to support them, a study by AGI, former British prime minister Tony Blair’s London-based development consultancy found.
AGI based its projections on the WHO’s worst-case scenario, which forecast 10,000 new cases per week in December.
“The international community badly misjudged the impact of the Ebola epidemic in its first few months and is compounding that error by failing to act quickly enough now,” AGI Chief Executive Nick Thompson said.
He called on more countries to follow the examples of the United States, Britain and Cuba, which have deployed military and medical personnel to the region to bolster efforts to stop the epidemic at its source.
Some Republican lawmakers have called for a travel ban on the worst-affected countries after four cases of Ebola were diagnosed in the United States. New York, New Jersey and Illinois have imposed mandatory 21-day quarantines for health care workers coming from West Africa, even if they are not sick.
Obama has resisted such a move on advice from public health officials who say Ebola, which is spread through contact with bodily fluids of an infected person, poses no major health threat to the country.
Power said there was a risk these new measures could deter aid workers from traveling to West Africa to help.
“We’re in very close consultations with the states, we understand the legitimate fears,” Power said. “We’ve got to find a way to address that fear, but we can’t do so in a manner that undermines our ability to deal with the problem at its source.”
“We have to find the right balance in order to continue to attract health workers at the same time we try to address the fears of the healthcare workers neighbors when they come home,” she said.
Power said the benefits of seeing the Ebola response first hand outweighed the risks of traveling to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. She added that she would take all necessary precautions during her visit and upon her return to the United States, including checking her temperature “many times a day.”
Power also plans to visit the headquarters of the United Nations Ebola response mission in Ghana, which is coordinating efforts in West Africa.
Editing by Joe Bavier, Tom Heneghan and Jeffrey Benkoe