© Kjell Gunnar Beraas, MSF, File, Associated Press
Sometimes the artifice of writing - metaphors, historical comparisons, the just-so quote - fails. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa demands directness: We are about to witness a human catastrophe that could destroy large portions of a continent and pose a global threat. And the response of the world, including the United States, is feeble, irresponsible and disrespectful of nature's lethal perils.
American health officials and nonprofit groups are bringing back the same report from the region. In Liberia, the rate of new infections has probably already moved from a linear to an exponential curve. The same may be true within the next week or so for Sierra Leone and Guinea. The normal countermeasures for an infectious disease - isolation, case investigation, contact tracing - are increasingly irrelevant given the rate of increase. Local health care infrastructure, which barely existed in the first place, is overwhelmed.
People have lost faith in the large clinics, where 50 percent to 60 percent of patients who enter do not leave alive. And those in need of emergency care for other conditions - such as heart attacks or complicated births - are often frightened of clinics and hospitals, and are dying without treatment.
The international response is inadequate and disorganized. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations provide "road maps." But, according to one infectious disease expert, "there is no one to implement command, control and communications. No one." Multiple, uncoordinated organizations are attempting to confront a disease that is out of control.
"They are quibbling over 25 to 30 bed units," the expert vents. Meanwhile, WHO has revised its prediction of new Ebola infections upward to 20,000 by year-end. Other models indicate more like 100,000.
Once the growth of an outbreak becomes exponential, the tools normally at the disposal of health officials have limited value. It may require military airlifts just to deliver sufficient rubber gloves, aprons, soap and buckets to highly affected areas. Doctors Without Borders is calling for the deployment of civilian and military medical teams to provide triage centers, field hospitals with isolation wards, mobile diagnostic labs and systems for the management of corpses.