Obama Says Ebola Response Must Focus on Improving Health Systems

Aug 06, 2014 7:31 pm ET

(For more on the U.S.-Africa summit, see EXT6 <GO>)

Aug. 6 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama said the Ebola outbreak in West Africa can best be controlled by improving public health infrastructure there before any attempt is made to widely deliver an experimental drug.

“We’ve got to let the science guide us,” he said during a news conference that concluded the three-day U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington. “We’re focusing on the public health approach right now because we know how to do that.”

The president said the disease has spread because health systems in the region were “overwhelmed” and many people there don’t fully trust medical workers. With the right public health protocols, he said, the virus “can be controlled and contained very effectively.”

The most recent outbreak is the worst on record and has killed 932 people in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, according to the World Health Organization. The international group is convening a panel of medical ethicists to explore the use of experimental treatments.

After an experimental drug developed by Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc. was used to treat two infected American health workers, Nigeria’s health ministry requested access to the drug from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I don’t think all the information is in on whether this drug is helpful,” Obama said when asked about the ethics of making the drug available. “I will continue to seek information about what we’re learning with respect to these drugs going forward.”

Use of the drug, called ZMapp, is raising questions about whether a medicine that hasn’t been shown to be safe in humans should be distributed more widely during the outbreak and, given the limited amount of medicine available, who should get it, the WHO said in the announcement.