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Ebola out of headlines but on the horizon

By Irwin Redlener
updated 2:56 PM EST, Fri November 28, 2014
A healthcare worker diagnosed with Ebola after returning from Sierra Leone is wheeled in a quarantine tent onto an airplane at Glasgow International Airport in Scotland on Tuesday, December 30, bound for The Royal Free hospital in London. Health officials say the Ebola outbreak in West Africa is the deadliest ever. More than 6,000 people have died there, <a href='http://www.who.int/csr/disease/ebola/situation-reports/en/' target='_blank'>according to the World Health Organization.</a> A healthcare worker diagnosed with Ebola after returning from Sierra Leone is wheeled in a quarantine tent onto an airplane at Glasgow International Airport in Scotland on Tuesday, December 30, bound for The Royal Free hospital in London. Health officials say the Ebola outbreak in West Africa is the deadliest ever. More than 6,000 people have died there, according to the World Health Organization.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Irwin Redlener: Ebola headlines in U.S. may have receded, but it's mistake to think threat gone
  • He says Ebola is out of control in Sierra Leone and has spread to Mali
  • Redlener says U.S. hospitals remain woefully unprepared for potential resurgence
  • Budget cuts have hit key preparedness programs, but we can't hit snooze button, he says

Editor's note: Irwin Redlener is director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University's Earth Institute and the author of "Americans at Risk: Why We Are Not Prepared for Megadisasters and What We Can Do Now." The views expressed are his own.

(CNN) -- Ebola may have faded from the headlines in the United States, but the threat -- to Africa and the rest of the world -- remains.

This month, the Senate Homeland Security Committee held a hearing on Ebola, including testimony by Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He noted that the CDC had lowered its estimate of the number of cases likely to emerge in West Africa. Despite this positive news, Ebola remains largely out of control in Sierra Leone.

Irwin Redlener
Irwin Redlener

The World Health Organization announced this month that Guinea is "relatively stable," but the recent spread of the virus into Mali only confirms the need for a greater sustained effort to combat Ebola at its origin.

That's why many experts are cautioning that declaring the emergency over is premature. And it's why the Obama administration and key members of Congress are requesting $6.1 billion to beef up our ability to eradicate Ebola and prepare for future epidemics.

There are two reasons why this emergency is far from over.

First, as long as Ebola rages in West Africa, health care systems in the United States and elsewhere will need to remain on high alert. There is no way to assure that Ebola -- or other known and unknown biological threats -- will be contained without the ability on a global scale to identify, manage, eradicate or even prevent these diseases from spreading.

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Improving our capacity to develop vaccines, respond to crises overseas and develop other countermeasures for dangerous viruses are vital.

Second, the death from Ebola of Thomas Eric Duncan in Dallas was a powerful illustration of how unprepared we are to deal with large-scale biological threats. Few of the almost 5,000 hospitals in the United States are at the level of Bellevue Hospital Center in New York, Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, the University of Nebraska Medical Center or the handful of other facilities that have been designated as ready to handle Ebola-like illnesses.

Why aren't we ready? Part of the problem is that budget cuts over the last decade have slashed the federally funded Hospital Preparedness Program and special disaster funding for public health agencies. Indeed, since 2008, some 50,000 public health positions have been eliminated due to funding cuts.

For many public health agencies, even getting routine work done, never mind responding to crises, is proving a challenge for many communities in the United States.

The emergency funds being sought to respond to Ebola here and in Africa are critical to helping protect the American public.

The recent U.S. experience of Ebola was a wake-up call. But if the country hits the snooze button once the media coverage fades, we'll have missed a critical moment to deal not just with this deadly illness, but with future disasters, too.

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