On January 6, 2014 a 2-year-old girl dies in the forests of Guinea in West Africa. Her parents and community mourn a loss that happens too often in this part of the world. What they didn’t know was that her death was the start of the worst outbreak of Ebola in world history.
Three months later, the disease was identified as Ebola, by which time the virus had spread to neighboring Sierra Leone and Liberia. It then burst onto the world stage with desperate scenes in the Liberian capital, Monrovia. By late October, the disease had entered neighboring Mali, infecting 40 people.
Now about 10,000 cases of Ebola have been identified and about 5,000 have died. The World Health Organization (WHO) calculates that the number of cases could double every three weeks if the outbreak is not brought under control. The virus spreads because local health systems in these countries are weak. These nations are still struggling to recover from long civil wars that occurred in the 1990s. They are among the poorest nations in the world. In 2012 Liberia had a per capita income of $782, compared to the United States at just under $50,000.
The response of the US Government was relatively quick, but insufficient. Since then, the United States has committed $750 million and 4,000 troops, largely financed from the Department of Defense, and has deployed almost half of that amount. But the United Nations estimates that it needs $1 billion immediately to build a response capable of slowing, if not halting, the spread of Ebola. Bishop Richard Pates, chairman of the USCCB Committee on International Justice & Peace, wrote to the National Security Council to urge our nation to work with other donor nations to expand their efforts to stop the virus
The Catholic Church, which sponsors between 40% and 70% of African health facilities (WHO), has also acted in response to the crisis in West Africa. Pope Francis expressed his grave concern for “this implacable disease that is spreading especially in Africa, and in particular among the most disadvantaged populations”. He urged the world community “to take all necessary measures to eradicate the virus and to alleviate the suffering of those who are so sorely afflicted”.
The Church is mobilizing its Caritas organizations to distribute hygiene kits to families, training clergy and other community members, broadcasting Ebola messages on the radio, and providing food to families affected by the crisis. In September, Catholic Relief Services committed $1.5 million to increase its efforts to conduct Ebola education services. On November 4, representatives from Caritas agencies worldwide will meet to coordinate efforts to rapidly increase their response.
There is a challenge beyond the immediate crisis of containing the disease. The international community needs to help strengthen health systems in developing nations to prevent future outbreaks of such diseases.
You can support the Church’s work to stop this deadly disease by contributing to Catholic Relief Services and urging our government to do more.
Stephen Hilbert is a policy advisor on Africa and global development at the USCCB’s Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.
Join Catholic Relief Services in ending the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.