National Geographic News
A photo of MSF healthcare workers in Liberia.

Health care workers wearing protective suits leave a high-risk area in a hospital in Monrovia last week. Liberia has been hardest-hit by the Ebola virus raging through West Africa, with 624 deaths and 972 cases since the start of the year.

Photograph by Dominique Faget, AFP/Getty

Karen Weintraub

for National Geographic

Published September 3, 2014

The battle against Ebola is winnable, public health officials say, but a growing chorus of institutions and experts is warning this week that an insufficient global response to West Africa's epidemic may put a solution to the crisis out of reach.

The disease is spreading uncontrollably in Liberia and Sierra Leone, has now spread beyond Lagos in Nigeria, and has just been detected in a fifth West African country, Senegal. (Related: "As Ebola Crisis Spreads in West Africa, Liberia's Deterioration Stands Out.")

At a news conference Wednesday, the head of the World Health Organization and a United Nations senior system coordinator for Ebola disease renewed pleas for more support from the world's nations, while praising current efforts by the United States, the United Kingdom, Uganda, South Africa, and some others.

The problem basically comes down to a lack of trained volunteers, the officials said. (Related: "Doctors and Nurses Risk Everything to Fight Ebola in West Africa.")

"Without the support of foreign medical teams, it is very difficult to mount a response [on] the scale that is in keeping" with the scope of the problem, said Margaret Chan, the WHO's director-general. She said foreign medical teams have been "very far and few between."

It takes 200 to 250 health care providers to care for 80 Ebola patients at one center, said Keiji Fukuda, the WHO's assistant director-general for health security. Additional people are needed to drive patients to medical centers, to bury the dead, and to seek out contacts of sick people to help contain the disease.

"As the outbreak gets bigger, we estimate there will be the need for several thousand people taking care of patients among the many different countries," Fukuda said. "It's not a static number and it will depend on the size of the outbreak."

Map of Africa showing countries with ebola outbreaks in the past, and currently. Main map shows numbers of cases and deaths in each affected country.
*Suspected, probable, and confirmed cases and deaths as of August 26, 2014. Senegal data as of August 29, 2014.

The public health officials declined to name specific countries they think need to do more other than to point generally to nations with the capacity and experience to respond to biohazards.

Epidemic Won't Burn Out

"States with those capacities know who they are," Michael Goldfarb, a spokesperson for the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières, said Wednesday. "We hope they will hear both our plea and that from the frightened populations affected by the outbreak."

Joanne Liu, international president of the MSF, told UN officials Tuesday that the world is losing its battle with Ebola because of inaction.

"Leaders are failing to come to grips with this transnational threat," she said. "We cannot cut off the affected countries and hope this epidemic will simply burn out. To put out this fire, we must run into the burning building."

A detailed World Health Organization plan for fighting Ebola, released last week, looks great on paper, Liu said, but realities on the ground aren't going to change without action. What's needed is more well-trained, well-equipped staff treating patients and gumshoe epidemiology to track down and isolate potential new cases.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also called this week for more aggressive international action against Ebola. At a Tuesday news conference, CDC Director Tom Frieden, just back from a tour of the hardest-hit West African nations, praised local health care workers and asked for more help from his counterparts across the world. (Related: "Q&A: Photographer in Liberia's Ebola Zone Encounters the Dead—But Also Moments of Joy.")

"I wish every world leader could see what I have seen," he said in prepared remarks. "Stopping this outbreak is more than any one nation can do ... The sooner the world comes together to help West Africans, the safer we all will be."

Since July, the CDC has sent more than a hundred experts to the region to assist with surveillance, health education management, and tracking down contacts of sick people, among other things. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has paid more than $21 million for health equipment, food, training, and emergency supplies in West Africa.

Follow Karen Weintraub on Twitter.


— Q&A: Photographer in Liberia's Ebola Zone Encounters the Dead—But Also Moments of Joy
— As Ebola Crisis Spreads in West Africa, Liberia's Deterioration Stands Out
— Successful Marburg Virus Treatment Offers Hope for Ebola Patients
— Q&A: Challenges of Containing Ebola's Spread in West Africa
— Why Deadly Ebola Virus Is Likely to Hit the U.S. But Not Spread

Hardy Glennson
Hardy Glennson

And what would be an adequate response? To drop everything and race to the scene? To panic and further spread the disease? The Medical people say isolation won't help. Yet they haven't been able to keep their own from contracting the disease. The best reaction is a cool reaction. Life comes and goes. These fearless religious zealots out to do Gods work because they know he can't aren't helping anything. It is what it is.Isollation certainly is responsible and prudent. Thats the hard cold fact. Get over it. Maybe God is working.

Jennifer  Sherman
Jennifer Sherman

This is an epidemic. One of many in our world. It is spreading and personally quite terrifying. That's the hard part, transparency to know if there are donations are they being used to help people and efforts currently in effect. There are selfless people there now trying to help, and I think that's where the focus needs to be. Not being cynical or placing the blame. It's a virus, it happens, but now what?  


i think because we are internationally connected now, there is not much hope to contain this virus.  it is already mutating, and aids is still amoung us, which could mutate into an airborne virus.  is this the harbinger for mankind.  the climate change will surly kill us in 20 or 30 yrs because again, the world leaders are treading water hoping that it will not rise over their heads.   the greed and self important attitude of humanity is the future face of the planet being purged of people.  hopefully the earth can recover.  without us.

John Stroebel
John Stroebel

OK, so if a person wants to volunteer, how do they sign up? Where do they go? Who do they contact?????

Seamus Cameron
Seamus Cameron

The fact is we can't save everybody and every ecosystem has a carrying capacity. Well intentioned people have allowed much of the world to exceed that capacity. Mother Nature is a harsh taskmaster and will find a way to balance the equation.

Jacky Turansky
Jacky Turansky

Johann makes a good point...though it's not just lack of pay, it's lack of money. Not too many people are going to volunteer to help with an ebola outbreak if they can't even be guaranteed of having a hazmat suit. And they can't. There aren't enough facilities, there's not enough of anything. I read somewhere about a cash injection by the IMF...that offer seems to have gone no where as far as I can tell.

Stella Dineva
Stella Dineva

It's just the way world works nowadays.. The big business makes an epidemy, scares the population.. then suddenly a cure is being invented and after some time of fear and worries for the mankind the cure starts working and everything goes back to normal.
But some poeple got rich, some people died.

Remember the H5N1, white powder, mad cow? The old song with new melody

Johann L.
Johann L.

Lack of sufficient workers to care for patients doesn't mean "not enough volunteers". It means NOT ENOUGH PAY. When did we become this crazy backwards world that is willing to pay millions to athletes but people taking care of EBOLA patients are expected to do it for free?

Carter Fox Jr.
Carter Fox Jr.

The more folks to go fight, the more folks get infected, and the more folks can bring it back to wherever they came from! Isn't this how it's been working so far?

cornell kortenhoeven
cornell kortenhoeven

@John Stroebel It's good to see people are interested in volunteering! As a note of caution - be sure of what you're signing up for. Ebola is NOT for the feint hearted, and the downfall it causes within villages is very serious. In research, it's classified as a Biological Security Level 4 pathogen, which means it cannot be handled outside an environment incredibly well controlled. Researchers are trained specifically to work in BSL 4 labs, close to what you see in movies. These facilities are not available in the affected countries. Medical professionals that come into contact with patients wear full body protection and are trained to work with these patients without getting infected, but the risk is still very great. Whatever you set out to do - try to educate yourself very well before signing up! Every volunteer makes a world's difference in whatever they do. Good Luck!

Peter Nedyalkov
Peter Nedyalkov

@Stella Dineva 

There is no cure for H5N1. There is no cure for mad cow.

Anthrax, which barely had any victims, is treated successfully with antibiotics which exist for a long time now, if detected on time.

The patients suffering from Ebola are not profitable, they aren't millions, they are literally one or two thousands.

Please stop spreading your conspiracies about the medical industry and the government when you don't have a clue and assume things just because you want to feel "different" and put yourself above others. I literally hate your kind of people, so clueless, yet claiming to have ultimate knowledge.

People died, no one got rich, you posted a stupid comment.

Laura Dally
Laura Dally

@Carter Fox Jr. That's exactly what I'm thinking.  Also, it doesn't matter how many people are there to help.  Without running water and modern facilities it's impossible to safeguard anyone or anything from the virus.

M. La Rosa Betancourt
M. La Rosa Betancourt

@Peter Nedyalkov why the hate? Why to disqualify? I do agree with more of your views as well but we do not need to get personal.   In my opinion there is no reason why you should response  in such a grotesk manner.  

You posted a really rude comment and you should be ashamed of yourself.


Popular Stories

The Future of Food

  • Why Food Matters

    Why Food Matters

    How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?

  • Download: Free iPad App

    Download: Free iPad App

    We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.

See more food news, photos, and videos »