The head of the U.S. Agency for International Development spoke urgently in support of the Obama administration's request for $6.2 billion to tackle the Ebola crisis, warning that more resources are crucial to break the deadly virus' grip on parts of West Africa.
Testifying Thursday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah said there are numerous clusters of Ebola infecting villagers in rural and remote areas and that rapid response is vital to handling the flare-ups and preventing them from spreading.
U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Bisa Williams, Assistant Defense Secretary for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict Michael Limpkin, Maj. Gen. James Lariviere and Joint Staff Surgeon Army Maj. Gen. Nadja West testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committe about the ongoing international response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa, Nov. 13, 2014. (Getty Images)
More than 14,000 people have been infected with the virus worldwide and more than 5,000 have died, according to the latest World Health Organization figures.
Shah, who has traveled to the region, said it's vital to have U.S. Navy diagnostics labs to test potentially infected patients with greater speed in Guinea, Sierra Leon and Liberia, which are still hotbeds for the virus.
Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) pressed Shah on the multiple failures by the World Health Organization to tackle the virus early on, saying it "demonstrated deadly incompetence."
Shah said there have been "very significant changes" made at the WHO in lieu of its failures in responding. He asked Royce to give his agency broad transfer authority of funding to deal with the outbreak.
Shah said USAID has already spent $500 million of its little more than $1 billion in yearly funding.
"We will not be able to sustain this effort without relief," he said.
With 5,000 children orphaned from the Ebola epidemic, Shah told House members that legislation for food resources in the region is essential.
Shah said he met with first responders in Liberia as well as the 65 burial teams that are reducing transmission of the virus. Shah said virus transmission after death is the greatest challenge in fighting the outbreak: Burial-related infections have led to roughly 75 percent of infections in the region.
He said the new burial teams are trained to dispose of bodies in a dignified manner that has lowered the virus’s transmission rate. In Sierra Leon, health care workers are receiving the appropriate equipment to protect themselves. In Guinea, Ebola infections are at their lowest, affecting approximately 500 to 600 people, but reaching rural villages is still extremely difficult.
Royce and other members said the only way to halt the spread of the virus to the United States is to temporarily suspend travel visas to non-U.S. nationals in the region, but Shah disagreed: he argued that a visa ban would reduce the ability to track people who would simply choose to travel illegally instead.
Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) countered that there are still laws in place to protect U.S. citizens, even if a minority of people break them on occasion.
Michael Lumpkin, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, said the Ebola outbreak constitutes a global national security threat.
Lumpkin, who recently visited the region, said he came away with the major observation that "we face a logistics crisis with a health care challenge."
"[The] Ebola epidemic truly is a national security issue," he said. Without containing and handling the logistical problems with the outbreak in Africa, he said, it will lead to more infections in the U.S. and across the globe.
"We cannot afford to let up and we cannot afford to do this alone," Lumpkin said.
Follow Sara A. Carter (@SaraCarterDC) on Twitter