WASHINGTON, D.C. - Organizations on the front lines of the fight to contain Ebola in West Africa came to Capitol Hill today to detail both the hurdles and the progress of the life-and-death efforts to contain the virus and assist the victims of the epidemic before the House global health subcommittee chaired by Congressman Chris Smith (NJ-04). Smith introduced legislation on Nov. 14 to authorize U.S. efforts to contain the virus overseas.
Today's hearing, "Fighting Ebola: A Ground Level View," follows two congressional hearings Smith chaired on the Ebola threat in August and September featuring key government testimony from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), U.S. State Department, U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), National Institutes for Health and various Health and Human Services Department officials. But today's hearing gave voice exclusively to the groups whose workers who are most at risk, including International Medicorps, Africare and Global Communities.
'This hearing is intended to take testimony from non-governmental organizations providing services on the ground currently in the affected countries so we can better determine how proposed actions are being implemented," said Smith , a senior member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and Chairman of its Africa and global health subcommittee who authored and introduced H.R. 5710, the Ebola Emergency Response Act. "This bill lays out the steps needed for the U.S. government to effectively help fight the West African Ebola epidemic, especially in Liberia-the worst-hit of the three affected countries. This includes recruiting and training health care personnel, establishing fully functional treatment centers, conducting education campaigns among populations in affected countries and developing diagnostics, treatments and vaccines."
H.R. 5710 confirms U.S. policy in the anti-Ebola fight and provides necessary authorities for the Administration to continue or expand anticipated actions. The bill encourages U.S. collaboration with other donors to mitigate the risk of economic collapse and civil unrest in the three affected countries. Furthermore, the legislation authorizes funding of the International Disaster Assistance account at the higher FY2014 level-an additional $500 million-to effectively support anti-Ebola efforts. Building upon testimony from other service providers at previous hearings, witness Rabih Torbay, Senior Vice President for International Operations at the International Medical Corps, one of only a small handful of international NGOs treating Ebola patients in West Africa, said his organization operates in Liberia and Sierra Leone-where more than two-thirds of all Ebola cases and over three-quarters of all Ebola-related deaths have been reported. By month's end he anticipates having a total staff of about 800 in Liberia and Sierra Leone, of which 90 percent are African nationals.
"By year's end we expect this number to reach 1,000 working in four Ebola Treatment Units in Liberia and Sierra Leone," Torbay said. "I would like to acknowledge the dedicated and courageous international and African national staff working in our treatment centers. They have come from inside Liberia and outside - including physicians and nurses from many parts of the United States, Europe and Africa. Our staff is comprised of doctors, nurses, technicians, specialists in water, sanitation and hygiene, logisticians, mental health professionals, custodial workers, and members of burial teams."
Brett Sedgewick is the Technical Advisor for Food Security and Livelihoods at Global Communities, which began combating the spread of Ebola in April by providing community education, protective equipment and hygiene materials to communities through its existing program partnering with USAID's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA).
"Our activities aim to combat infection through community engagement and education, safe burial and body management, contact tracing, and ambulance services," Sedgewick said. "Beyond the immediate health effects, we are seeing second tier effects of the outbreak: economic downturn, food insecurity, unemployment, a huge number of orphans and child head of households, and potential instability... Due to the nature of how Ebola is transmitted, at Global Communities we have focused our immediate and greatest efforts on safe burial and body management. Ebola is spread through bodily fluids that increase in their level of contagion as the virus multiplies throughout the body and the patient becomes increasingly ill. Those most at risk for contracting the virus are those caring for the sick, and those handling the dead."
Dr. Darius Mans, Ph.D., President of Africare testified that when the Ebola crisis began earlier this year in West Africa, Africare mobilized more than $2 million in private donations to help break the chain of transmission.
"We have shipped and will continue to ship personal protection equipment and essential health supplies to Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia through partnerships with Direct Relief and local aid organizations," said Mans, who told the panel that Africare has trained more than 300 local volunteer community health workers who, in turn, have educated more than 150,000 Liberians about Ebola prevention, detection and care. "One of the big lessons of this crisis is that donors need to move beyond the old vertical program approach of targeting resources to specific disease burdens like malaria and HIV/AIDS and invest in strengthening the public health systems."
To read the testimonies of the witnesses, or to watch video of the hearing, click here. Smith said that with more than 5,000 reported dead, efforts must be ramped up from what the Administration had been conducting at our previous hearings in August and in September. HR 5710 provides necessary authorities for the Administration to continue or expand anticipated actions to tame the outbreak. The bill encourages U.S. collaboration with other international partners to mitigate the risk of economic collapse and civil unrest in the three affected countries. Furthermore, the legislation authorizes and restores funding of the International Disaster Assistance account at $1.8 billion (up from the previously reduced level of $1.3 billion) to support anti-Ebola efforts.
H.R. 5710 authorizes improved border security and the creation of a secure operating environment for health workers and other responders and the communities they are serving. It authorizes coordination of U.S. efforts with countries in Africa affected by or at risk of being affected by the outbreak with other assisting nations, as well as the private sector, regional and international financial institutions, local, regional, and international organizations, civil society, and nongovernmental organizations that possess experience in emergency relief and infection control.
As Chairman of the Africa and Global Health subcommittee Smith ordered an emergency congressional hearing in August 2014 - featuring Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC, as well as the U.S. State Department, and USAID. He held a second hearing on Sept. 17, 2014 featuring the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, USAID, and the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases. Smith has also held numerous hearings on health threats around the world, including hearings on tropical diseases in June 2013 and another on "Superbugs" in April 2013.