Sen. Alexander: Ebola as big a threat as Islamic State

An out-of-control Ebola outbreak in West Africa has Tennessee officials concerned about the nation’s response to what could become a global health threat.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Monday that Ebola should be considered as serious a threat as the Islamic State.

Tuesday Tennessee public health officials will meet with people from West Africa living in Nashville to share information. The actions come as President Obama is expected to announce new efforts to stop the spread of the hemorrhagic fever that has killed half of those infected.

“This is an instance where we should be running toward the burning flames with our fireproof suits on,” Alexander said. “This is an emergency. We need to recognize it, and we need to find and work with other countries in the world that recognize it.”

On Friday, U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Brentwood, and other leaders of a House committee sent a letter to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell seeking details on the risk Ebola poses to the nation, efforts to protect Americans and response plans.

Peter Gailah, a leader with the Association of Liberians in Tennessee, said Ebola is “spreading like wildfire” in his homeland and asked fellow Nashvillians to do what they can to help.

“What we are looking for is to see who can help us with whatever they have,” Gailah said. “We are not pinpointing to anything specific, saying, ‘We need this’ or ‘We need that.’ Whatever we can get. Be it gloves. Be it hospital beds. Whatever the health-care worker can use or the citizens at large can use, like food.”

Liberia’s health system is so overwhelmed that it did not have a single hospital bed available to treat a new Ebola patient anywhere in the country, the World Health Organization said Friday. The virus has quickly spread to heavily populated areas since the outbreak was first reported in March, and experts say it will take months to stop new infections. WHO estimates that $600 million is needed to fully fund an effective response.

Gailah’s organization is trying to do what it can. It has raised about $700.

WHO said health workers are running short of protective equipment. But the organization said the most immediate need is health-care specialists appropriately trained to keep themselves safe.

Gailah said the people he talks to in Liberia are afraid to leave their homes, so he’s concerned a ripple effect from the outbreak will be a food crisis.

“It’s not like here where you can sit back and put food in the refrigerator for weeks,” Gailah said. “There, they go to the market every day for daily food. It really takes a toll on them because they can’t get to the market because they are afraid.”

Gailah said he’s been sending text messages to loved ones with advice on how to cope with the crisis and avoid the virus. That’s one reason the Tennessee Department of Health has invited people from West Africa to a meeting Tuesday to share information, said state epidemiologist Dr. Tim F. Jones.

“We’ve been looking at ways to reach out to our communities and particularly work with communities here that have close relationships with the affected areas in West Africa,” Jones said. “This has been done in other states, and I think it has sort of dual benefits.”

The meeting will help Liberian-Americans and others from West Africa living here provide accurate information to relatives in their homelands, he said.

And it will allow health officials to hear how they can do a better job with outreach efforts.

The response of Americans to the Ebola crisis has been muted compared to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, probably because people don’t know what to do, Jones said.

“This is very, very different from a natural disaster,” Jones said. “It takes much more specialized equipment and specialized training.”

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Dan Mullin is an active writer and editor for the Pluto Daily who covered the 2014 Ebola Outbreak. Mullin attended the Wake Forest School of Medicine before leaving to pursue his lifelong science goal of allowing humans to live forever via a computer/brain transfer.