The death Wednesday of the Dallas Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan underscores the high stakes around controlling the spread of the disease. To that point, the federal government has announced it would soon screen air travelers coming from West Africa to see if they have temperatures.
Separately, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more than 1,000 people working around the world to contain Ebola. On-the-ground work involves risk and problem solving, where staff must do everything from collecting blood samples, to tracking the sick, to hiring workers to pick up the dead.
It’s a difficult job, says Dr. Bridgette Gleason, who turned 30 this week. Gleason says she’s seen tragedy every day since Sept. 13, the day she arrived in Sierra Leone.
“Being surrounded by death, it’s obviously overwhelming if you really focus on that,” she says. “To really make a difference you have to focus on what you can do.”
That attitude gives a sense of the men and women who parachute into these communicable disease hot spots. Staffers are expert trouble-shooters. But with the Ebola spreading in West Africa, CDC folks like Peter Kilmarx – who is leading the operation in Sierra Leone — must do something outside the norm: think about budgets.
“We are not fully meeting the demand and it’s stressful. It’s a very challenging situation,” he says.
For the past 20 years, CDC field staff has depended on the non-profit CDC Foundation for money when it would otherwise take too long going through bureaucratic channels at the agency.
The outbreak has gotten so big so fast, so that’s changed.
“There is simply not enough money at this time to meet the needs that CDC is sending our way,” says the Foundation’s executive director, Charlie Stokes.
Stokes understands putting a crimp in this financial lifeline is actually a matter of life and death. That’s why the foundation launched an emergency fund back in August to address Ebola.
“We initially thought $30 million would be enough,” he says. “What we are seeing in terms of needs in the field tells me it’s going to be considerably more than that.”
To put that figure in perspective, that’s what the foundation spends on all of its programs in a year. Stokes estimates Ebola needs $50 million alone.
If the foundation falls short, Stokes knows he’ll have to level with the CDC docs.
“We are either going to have the money and send it, or we are going to have to say, ‘you are going to have to prioritize,’” he says.
Stokes admits it’s easy to feel overmatched by this epidemic, but – much like Gleason in Sierra Leone –he says he’s going to focus on what he can do.