13 November 2014
Sixty-ninth session, Meeting on Ebola (AM)

Worst-Case Scenario Averted, But Fight to Contain Deadly Ebola Outbreak Far from Over, Special Representative Warns General Assembly

More than 5,000 Confirmed Fatalities, Actual Death Toll Likely Much Higher

The global fight against the Ebola virus so far had aborted a worst-case scenario of runaway increases in infections, but the disease was far from contained, delegates in the General Assembly heard today during an information briefing on the crisis.

“Ebola is a fearsome enemy and we will not win the battle by chasing it,” said Anthony Banbury, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER), stressing the urgent need to “get ahead of it”.

He began his briefing by acknowledging the Secretary-General’s effort to implement Assembly resolution 69/1 that established UNMEER and a rapid passage by the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) of a temporary financing arrangement, known as a commitment authority, to make the Mission operational.

He noted that the crisis had just exceeded a grim milestone of 5,000 confirmed deaths, mostly in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, with the real number likely to be much higher.  Communities previously untouched were now seeing Ebola spread rapidly.  Devastation went far beyond the human toll, with 3,300 children estimated to have become Ebola orphans, food prices rising, schools closed and traders afraid of coming to markets.  In Nigeria, one case resulted in 899 contacts, requiring 54 teams and 18,000 visits.  He expressed concern that many countries in the region did not have the health infrastructure to effectively and rapidly respond to an outbreak.

The good news was that the worst-case scenario of sustained exponential increases in victims did not materialize and many communities were seeing significant decreases in the infection rate, including hard-hit Monrovia, Liberia.  One main reason for the improvement was local community engagement with people changing their behaviours.  Another factor was strong national responses supported by international assistance.

Mr. Banbury continued to outline elements for a successful response, including national leadership, crisis management structure and national plans.  It was necessary to establish treatment facilities, trace contacts, ensure safe and dignified burials and mobilize society.  Those interventions must be supported by five enabling activities – logistics, training, payment of workers, information management and human resource mobilization.

Headquartered in Ghana and operational in the three most affected countries, UNMEER had been busy deploying capabilities, with 142 personnel already in place and eight logistics centres established, Mr. Banbury said.  Assessing the Mission’s performance, he said the United Nations had responded to the unique challenges of Ebola in an unprecedented, innovative way, across bureaucratic barriers, to deliver a robust, tailored crisis response capability in record time.  Going forward, the Mission needed people especially in local districts, more but smaller Ebola treatment units, community care centres, partners on the ground to train staff and manage facilities and money to pay for activities.

David Nabarro, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on Ebola, recalled that last month he had described the disease as the most extraordinary public health challenge the world could face.  Actions by communities and affected countries, local and national Governments had been exemplary, and there was good evidence that people were changing the way they lived and behaved to reduce the likelihood of experiencing the disease.  That people-based response was at the heart of positive changes that had been seen.

Globally, he continued, a coalition had been developing and functioning as a joined-up community.  The United Nations system was coming together with an unprecedented level of coordination.  Like a shoal of fish moving suddenly, adjustments had to be made to what was being done, in light of new challenges emerging.

Susana Malcorra, Chef de Cabinet of the Secretary-General, said that while intervention was taking place in the short-term, there was a need to start thinking about longer-term issues.

Sam Kutesa, President of the General Assembly, said the international community must remain seized and continue to provide the much-needed support for combatting the disease, which was far from contained.  “Even as we sit today, many people in the affected countries are losing the battle against Ebola,” he said.

Tolbert Nyenswah, Chair of the Incidence Management System for Ebola Response of Liberia, said that the Government there was fighting against Ebola in three phases.  The first was to stop the increase in infection rates and reverse the trend.  It started to see empty beds at health facilities.  That goal had been already achieved.  By the end of September, the increase stopped and new infections started to decrease.  Liberia had entered the second phase, the most critical one.  Although the infection rate was decreasing, it was now levelling off.  The final phase would be to continue surveillance and stop human-to-human transmissions, which would require holistic regional responses.

Guinea’s representative said some progress had been made and logistic strengthening was happening.  Ill people were being treated and there was better management of the bodies of the victims.  But the international community could not “rest on its laurels” and additional efforts were necessary.  The epidemic had affected health services, agricultural production and transportation by air and sea.  Tourism had virtually halted.  Urban employment was destroyed.  The contributions were below those that were necessary, he said, urging that travel restrictions not be imposed and borders not be closed.

Sierra Leone’s representative said the news from his country remained grim. The daily death toll remained high, and health workers were striking because they were not being paid.  Funds should go to worthwhile projects as soon as possible.  In the outlying areas, the lack of simple tools, such as radios, meant burials kept happening in an unsafe way.  Efforts to help the country’s health system had to be invigorated and staffing levels replenished as health workers died.  The test of success would be when hospital beds were empty and when the most isolated villages had heard the news and individuals changed their behaviour.  Speed was a critical factor in fighting the epidemic and it was not helpful if resources remained in warehouses and did not get to the doctors and other health care workers.

In the ensuing interactive dialogue, Brazil’s representative noted that the three most-affected countries were in post-conflict stages.  The presence of the international community had helped ensure that peacebuilding efforts there had not suffered during the epidemic.  But those nations bordered several countries in conflict: Mali, Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea-Bissau.  The disease had to be prevented from spread into those conflict-ridden areas, he stressed, urging UNMEER to redouble its efforts to ensure that did not happen.

The United States’ delegate stressed the importance of private-sector engagement, urging companies already doing business in the region to stay and United States firms to invest in the region.  Those actors would help the region’s long-term economic and social recovery, she said.

Benin’s representative emphasized the importance of focusing efforts on isolating the disease, not the countries.  Even his country, far from the sources of the disease, was feeling the economic consequences.

Many delegations expressed their solidarity with the affected countries and outlined their unique contributions to the global fight against Ebola, with a representative of the European Union delegation saying that its Member States had mobilized more than $1.25 billion to fight the epidemic.  The Union had launched an initiative to boost research on Ebola by providing almost $350 million to accelerate the creation and production of a vaccine and potentially life-saving drugs.

Cuba, its delegate said, had sent specialized doctors to the area and its health-care workers were working throughout Africa.

The representatives of China and Japan were also among the speakers who described how their countries were helping contain the epidemic through financial, in-kind and personnel contributions.

Mauritania’s delegate, speaking on behalf of the African Group, welcomed the efforts of the World Bank, the African Development Bank and other institutions working to collect financial resources.

Also speaking today were the delegates of the United Kingdom, Norway, Germany, Sweden, Egypt, India, France, Australia and Turkey, as well as the representative of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

The General Assembly will meet again at 10 a.m. on Friday, 14 November, to discuss its agenda item on integrated and coordinated implementation of and follow-up to the outcomes of the major United Nations conferences and summits in the economic, social and related fields.

For information media. Not an official record.