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Worldwide response will be needed to contain dangerous Ebola epidemic

The widening Ebola outbreak demands international attention and a concerted effort to stop the virus from spreading across West Africa.

The World Health Organization reports that Ebola has infected about 1,800 people, killing more than 1,000 of them, in four West African countries.

WHO formally declared an international public health emergency last week. The agency’s director-general, Dr. Margaret Chan, said the move “acknowledges the serious and unusual nature of the outbreak and the potential for further international spread.”

The world needs to be vigilant, the doctor said, even though Ebola now is confined to a small part of the African continent. The virus was detected in Guinea in March and has hit Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria.

There is no drug proven to prevent or cure Ebola. It is not easily spread, requiring contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person. It does not spread through the air like a cold virus. But once unleashed, the high probability of a gruesome death invokes deep fear. West African families fearful of alerting authorities that the disease has struck have hidden their sick from view, and carried out dangerous burials without proper handling of bodies.

Health care workers in the region’s primitive hospitals have gotten the disease. The best-known are the American doctor and aid worker who were infected while caring for patients in Liberia. They were given an experimental drug that has worked well in monkeys but had not been tested in humans. Supplies of that drug are now exhausted.

The two Americans were flown to Atlanta, where they are recovering in a special isolation ward at Emory University Hospital. Their arrival set off an irrational near-panic in some quarters. The disease is to be feared, but with proper precautions there is little likelihood of it spreading in the United States.

It’s a different story in West Africa. WHO is urging the affected nations to take steps to contain the outbreak. Because those countries have limited ability to fight Ebola, WHO is calling on the rest of the world to help with money and medical help. The World Bank and European Union have answered the call, but more help will be needed.

WHO also has endorsed the use of untested drugs to combat the virus after the two Americans and a Spaniard, who later died, received the experimental vaccine. That attempt to save Westerners while Africans are left to die has raised ethical questions. It is a difficult situation, and has fueled suspicions about Western health care workers.

Drugs to treat Ebola are in various stages of development, but none is near approval from the Food and Drug Administration and even untested drugs are in limited supply.

The immediate answer is a coordinated response to get the disease under control by stepping up diagnosis, isolating patients and improving medical care for victims. This should not be a time to panic, but it should be a concern to everyone.