War on Ebola can be won … with a big effort, says World Bank chief

World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, a medical doctor, said that the best way to stop Ebola is to rush people who can help to the African nations at the core of the outbreak. He hailed the New York doctor diagnosed with Ebola as a hero.

Michael Bonfigli/Special to the Christian Science Monitor
World Bank President Jim Yong Kim speaks to reporters in Washington Friday.

With Ebola rising as a concern for Americans due to a case of the disease in New York City, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim said Friday that the challenge posed by the virus can be met through vigorous effort.

President Kim, himself a medical doctor, called the response by New York officials “impressive” and praised the Ebola patient there as a physician who was willing to go to West Africa to help others with the disease.

“Dr. [Craig] Spencer is a hero,” Kim told reporters at a breakfast for reporters sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor. Far from putting America at risk, “he is doing exactly what’s needed” to protect Americans and others worldwide.

Kim’s view – rooted in his past experiences leading fights against infectious disease – is that the way to stop Ebola is to rush people who can help to the three West African nations at the core of the outbreak. The battle is not so much against a disease as against a form of nihilism, the idea that there’s not much rich nations can do to help in the most-affected nations of Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone.

Kim was joined by other health officials Friday in cautioning against fear.

"We want to state at the outset that New Yorkers have no reason to be alarmed" by the diagnosis of Dr. Spencer Thursday, said Mayor Bill de Blasio. He spoke amid concerns fanned by news reports of Spencer riding the subway, taking a cab, and bowling since returning from Guinea a week ago.

Health officials have repeatedly given assurances that the disease is spread only by direct contact with bodily fluids (such as blood or saliva) not through casual contact. “Ebola only spreads when people are sick,” not before or after symptoms are present, says a fact sheet that the Department of Health and Human Services is encouraging people to share on Facebook.

As the message effort implies, the challenge for governments in nations like America is one of communication – maintaining public confidence – not just medical response.

Kim said most of the economic risks from Ebola, for nations outside West Africa, lie in an “aversion effect” (if people change their business routines out of fear) rather than the direct costs of treating patients or preventing infections.

Worldwide, growing awareness of the health and economic risks of Ebola is prompting developed nations into action. Kim said the response is now growing by the week.

“We are now on emergency footing ... but it took us a long time to get there,” he said. “Part of it was a sense of hopelessness, that you can't do anything in these three countries. I hope that's over. I fear it is not.”

He also said medical experts are developing plans for trials of potential vaccines.

Kim said the World Bank is putting some $400 million toward the Ebola fight, drawing on its ability to mobilize large amounts quickly. Although the bank’s traditional mission focuses on global economic development, he said improving health is one of the main channels to promote growth in developing nations.

West Africa, moreover, will now need financial aid to rebuild economies devastated by the Ebola crisis, economists say.

The vital next step, Kim said, is to get more health care professionals to West Africa to care for the sick.

“It’s thousands” who are needed on the ground, rotating in shifts that might last for months, he said.

He voiced expectation that Spencer will recover in New York – and maybe even return to Guinea.

“I wish him the best,” Kim said. “I would not be at all surprised if he goes back.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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