Does Ebola Threaten Latin America & the Caribbean?

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Q: Amid the Ebola outbreak, countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have heightened public health protections, such as Jamaica, where the government created a "National Coordinating Team" to respond to the threat of the virus, and the United States, which despite declaring its health system is superior has had health care workers contract the disease. How well are countries in the Americas prepared to fight the spread of a disease like Ebola? Are resources to protect public health in the region being allocated in the right way? What implications would an outbreak of a disease like Ebola have in areas such as immigration policy and security? What more should aid agencies, governments, multilateral organizations and others be doing in the fight against Ebola?

A: Marcos Espinal, director of the Department of Communicable Diseases and Health Analysis at the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization: "Countries in Latin America and the Caribbean are better prepared for Ebola today than they were five or 10 years ago. Since 2007, PAHO/WHO member states have been working, with our organization's support, to strengthen their abilities to detect and respond to acute public health risks that have the potential to cross borders and threaten people's health. These improvement efforts are mandatory under the 2005 International Health Regulations, which seek to prevent and control the international spread of disease while avoiding unnecessary interference with international traffic and trade. In the case of Ebola, detecting an imported case promptly will depend on health workers in both the public and private sectors understanding the symptoms and risk factors (especially travel history) of the disease. An effective response consists of isolating a suspect case, assigning well-trained personnel with adequate (and properly used) personal protective equipment to care for the patient, appropriate preparation and shipment of lab specimens to designated laboratories, good infection prevention and control practices and thorough contact tracing. It's also important for governments to practice good social and risk communication to maintain the public trust. By employing all these measures, Nigeria and Senegal were both able to halt their Ebola outbreaks within a few weeks of detecting imported cases. To ensure our region can mount a successful response, PAHO/WHO is collaborating closely with its member states, procuring personal protective equipment, providing norms and standards and mobilizing capacity-building missions to guide and support country preparedness efforts."

A: Katherine Bliss, senior associate at the CSIS Global Health Policy Center: "Given limited trade and direct travel between West Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean, the likelihood that Ebola will reach the region is relatively low. Outside of the United States, no cases have been confirmed in the Americas, although Brazil and Mexico have each tested travelers suspected of being infected with Ebola. All countries in the region are parties to the 2005 International Health Regulations and have been working to improve disease surveillance programs, with support from the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and other partners. Last week, health officials from 11 countries met in Havana under the auspices of ALBA to agree on a plan to improve their capacities to detect, investigate and manage potential Ebola cases. Chile, Colombia and Venezuela have all pledged support to the United Nations Multi-Partner Trust Fund for Ebola; Brazil has sent Ebola test kits, along with food supplies, to West Africa; and Cuba has deployed 91 health care workers to Guinea and Liberia. Yet several Caribbean countries have banned travel from the affected countries, and Colombia has announced that it will deny visas to those who have traveled to the affected countries during the previous month. The focus on Ebola offers a good opportunity to bolster regional disease detection and control capabilities, but it is important not to lose sight of current health challenges, including Chikungunya virus, introduced in the region in 2013, the ongoing cholera outbreak in Haiti, and non-communicable chronic diseases, the principal cause of death and disability in the region."

A: Amy Nunn, assistant professor of public health and medicine at Brown University: "It is laudable that countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have already developed policy responses to the Ebola outbreak. Proactive prevention and screening efforts will help stem the spread to Latin America and the Caribbean. However, perhaps the most important public-policy response will be one that provides resources to countries with the largest numbers of infections. To date, the international NGO response has been rapid and effective, particularly groups like Doctors Without Borders, IRC and religious relief services. However, nothing short of a massive influx of human resources to provide medical care and public health infrastructure in Liberia, Sierra Leone and other countries will stem the spread of Ebola. The U.S. government and military are perhaps best positioned to assume this role. If the United States wants to prevent more restrictive immigration and security measures, then it must help provide human resources and other medical and public health support to countries that are most affected."

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