In a chilling assessment of international efforts to stem a deadly Ebola outbreak, President Barack Obama said Thursday that the world has not done enough to respond to a health crisis that poses a growing threat to regional and global security.
"There is still a significant gap between where we are and where we need to be," Obama said in remarks to a high-level United Nations meeting on Ebola.
The warning came shortly after the World Health Organization (WHO) gave a rare hint of optimism in the West African crisis, announcing that the spread of the disease in Guinea appeared to have stabilized.
The crisis in West Africa is the largest ever outbreak of Ebola, with more than 6,200 people believed to have been infected, almost half of which have died. U.S. health officials have warned that the number of infected people could explode to at least 1.4 million by mid-January, though they have also cautioned that the totals could peak well below that figure if efforts to control the outbreak are ramped up.
Margaret Chan, director of the WHO, warned that the outbreak would likely get worse before it gets better. The virus, she said, was "still running ahead, jumping over everything we put in place to slow it down."
Chan echoed the U.N. Security Council's earlier warning that the outbreak, if not managed properly, would turn into a peace and security crisis. Concerns already are high over the economic impact to one of the world's poorest regions, and U.N. officials describe the global organization's response as its most intense ever to a health crisis.
Aid groups have said the sick were desperate, aid workers were exhausted and infection rates were doubling every three weeks.
"Our 150-bed facility in Monrovia opens for just 30 minutes each morning. Only a few people are admitted, to fill beds made empty by those who died overnight," Joanne Liu, president of the aid group Médecins Sans Frontières, told the meeting.
Obama has dispatched 3,000 U.S. troops to Liberia to set up facilities and form training teams to help treat Ebola victims. On Thursday, top lawmakers in Congress also approved the use of leftover Afghanistan war money to begin funding Obama's $1 billion request to help fight the outbreak.
While Obama touted U.S. contributions, he warned other nations that the U.S. does not have the capacity to fight the epidemic alone.
"Everybody's got to move fast in order for us to make a difference," he said. "If we do, we'll save hundreds of thousands of lives."
Meanwhile, Sierra Leone on Thursday took the dramatic step of sealing off districts where more than 1 million people live, as it and other West African countries struggle to control the deadly outbreak.
With three new districts under quarantine, about one third of Sierra Leone's 6 million people are now living in areas where their movements are heavily restricted. Under the new measures, people will be able to travel through quarantined districts during daylight hours so long as they do not stop.
The World Food Program will feed residents living in quarantined areas, but food prices have soared, some markets have shut, and the delivery of goods has slowed.
The Ebola outbreak comes a decade into Sierra Leone and Liberia's recovery from civil wars that killed hundreds of thousands of people in the 1990s.
“There is a desperate need to step up our response to this dreaded disease," the Sierra Leone government said. "The prognosis is that without additional interventions or changes in community behavior, the numbers will increase exponentially and the situation will rapidly deteriorate."
In an address to Sierra Leone on Wednesday night, President Ernest Bai Koroma put Port Loko, Bombali and Moyamba districts under isolation with immediate effect, allowing only people delivering essential services to enter and circulate within the areas. The restrictions will remain in place until the chain of transmission is broken, officials said.
In other parts of Sierra Leone, including the capital, Freetown, homes will be put under quarantine when cases are identified, according to a government statement. Security forces surrounded a house in a Freetown slum on Wednesday, quarantining residents inside, after a popular herbalist who lived there died from Ebola. The forces will ensure that no one leaves or enters until it's clear that no one else in the house has been infected.
A sharp increase in cases in the capital is driving the outbreak's spread in Sierra Leone, the WHO said Thursday, also noting that the three districts newly cordoned off were experiencing increased infections.
Restricting the movement in these "hotspots" could help to prevent the disease from spreading to new areas, but there's not much evidence on how this sort of measure works in an Ebola outbreak, said Sebastian Funk, lecturer in infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
"If transmission of Ebola mostly happens at home, it could make things worse. And it could also potentially seed mistrust and cause people to hide cases," he said. "It may buy you some time but it is probably not going to stop the epidemic."