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INTERVIEW: David Milliband on IRC's Ebola fight

With Ebola wreaking havoc  in West Africa, assistance from international partners is crucial in dealing with the disease which has killed over 4,000 people in especially Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. One of those who have come in to the rescue is the International Rescue Committee whose Chief Executive Officer, former British Foreign Secretary David Milliband has been visiting the region. He gave his assessment to Politico while in Sierra Leone last week. 

 David Milliband: I think Sierra Leone is at a tipping point - either it tips towards controlling the disease with intensive measures that isolate those who have the disease, that protect those who are trying to treat those with the disease and dispose of the bodies of those who died from the disease. Either that happens and the disease comes under control or we see a spiraling to a degree that at the moment has only been a horror but could become a reality if the disease is not put under control.

Politico: From what you’ve seen which do you think the country is headed?

David Milliband: I think that the tipping point means that it could go either way and that's obviously causing real fear in the country. But there is also a sense of determination and resilience for which Sierra Leoneans are famous. And I think is very very important indeed that as well as the debate about treatment beds the international community recognises that as well as requiring a global responses John Kerry said yesterday this outbreak, this crisis requires local solutions. House by house, street by street explaining to the local population how to avoid the spread of the disease which above all means stopping bodily exchange of fluids with those who are infected that is the absolute key to this.

Umaru Fofana: I take that to mean that there should be a strategy change. Why do you think the current strategy needs to be changed?

David Milliband: I think that the strategy is in formulation chasing after the disease. And at the moment or until now the disease has been out-stripping the response. And when that happens the responders have to adapt and chase after the disease not just with greater speed but also with greater efficacy and power. And that is what we are seeing at the moment. The three-pronged part of the process: one notification and identification, secondly care and protection for health care workers who are looking after people who have the disease, thirdly effective burial because 50 or 60 percent of the people are getting this disease by dealing with very ill people or with dead bodies

Umaru Fofana: Obviously you are saying all hands are needed to be on deck. What are you doing on your part or on the part of the International Rescue Committee which you head in stemming the spread of the disease?

David Milliband: This is a moment of getting all hands on deck. The International Rescue Committee has been here for 15 years. We have 200 staff in Sierra Leone and 200 in Liberia and our focus up till now has been on the prevention side because we feel that's been underestimated, undervalue. We have to cut the transmission chains that are spreading this disease. However we are also going to be moving into the treatment side as part of our role in leading the local NGOs with the chair of the local NGO Consortium which works with the International Community and with the government. And that kind of coordination is absolutely key in this kind of crisis

Umaru Fofana: What do you think about UK's response to the outbreak here?

David Milliband: I think that over the last couple of weeks the UK has stepped up in a big way and I have been very impressed with what I have seen from the Department of International Development which is the UK's development arm. Obviously UK has a very long history with Sierra Leone and there has been a lot invested in the success of this country. No one wants to see it go backwards and now I think Britain and others are responding in a way that's appropriate to the scale of it. The big challenge is whether we can catch up with the disease, and that's still an open question

Umaru Fofana: And do you think Britain should have intervened much earlier?

David Milliband: I think everyone agrees the whole international community should have come in earlier and I think the head or the deputy head of WHO has said that internationally there was just either complacency or just a failure to recognise the potential virulence and danger of this disease but of course there are local responsibilities as well and in the end the response is got to be a joining of global efforts with local solutions

Umaru Fofana: Finally there have been varied projections - some saying 20 or more thousand people will get infected by later this month or next month. And the US CDC says 1.4million in all three countries by January next year. Where do you stand?

David Milliband: I follow the advice which is that there is a very large range of potential outcomes to this. That is why we are at a tipping point. It's either the case that it affects single digit thousands of people as it is at the moment or even low tens of thousands of people that is tragic or it becomes an epidemic of monumental proportions. That is not just a tragedy but a disaster and that is what is in play at the moment and that’s why people like me, people like the International Rescue Committee are so committed to doing everything we can to help Sierra Leone, help Liberia avoid disaster.

Umaru Fofana: In which case do you fear for the UK that Ebola may just come to the UK?

David Milliband: I don’t think that there is any reason for panic in Western countries. It’s very very important to understand that this is a hard disease to catch. It requires the exchange of bodily fluids and the isolation of people who have the disease. After all the identification is not that difficult, we are running our own labs with 24 hours turnaround times whether or not people have got the disease there is no reason for panic on the part of Western countries. But what there is need for is just sensible precautions.

(C) Politico 14/10/14