An Ebola outbreak that has killed nearly two dozen people in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) reached the city of Mbandaka on Thursday, raising alarm among public health officials—who have noted in recent days that President Donald Trump’s slashing of emergency health funding may hinder attempts to combat such outbreaks.
Mbandaka is home to about 1.2 million people, and Ebola’s arrival has changed the face of an outbreak that had previously been confined to rural areas, killing an estimated 23 people. The presence of the highly contagious disease in a city—from which travelers frequently fly to the capital city of Kinshasa (pop.: 11 million)—elevates the risk of a widespread epidemic.
Trump asked Congress last week to cut $252 million in emergency response funding left over from the Obama administration’s $5.4 billion appropriation that was used to fight the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which killed more than 11,000 people. The funds, Trump said, were part of the country’s “excessive spending.”
The presidential request was made hours before the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that the DRC was facing a new outbreak. The funds are currently frozen while Congress determines how it will respond.
Ron Klain, who was named the United States’ first Ebola response coordinator in 2014 as fears of an outbreak in the U.S. grew, called Trump’s decision “crazily short-sighted.”
“Having some money left over was intentional,” to prepare the U.S. to help fight outbreaks like the one in the DRC, Klain told the Atlantic. As Ed Yong wrote:
[The funding] allows USAID to quickly deploy responders to the site of a future outbreak, to prevent it from metastasizing into an international disaster. It is not, as the Trump administration suggests, an example of “irresponsible federal spending.” Quite the opposite: It’s a savvy investment, since epidemics are always more expensive to deal with once they rage out of control.
The Trump administration initially proposed scaling back efforts to combat global health crises in February, alarming Democratic lawmakers and health policy experts, with global health groups warning Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar that without outbreak prevention funding, the U.S. “stands to lose vital information about epidemic threats garnered on the ground through trusted relationships, real-time surveillance, and research.”
In 2014, Trump’s public statements about West Africa’s Ebola epidemic—which reached the U.S. after medical aid workers who had treated patients in Guinea returned having been infected—centered on keeping Ebola out of the country and leaving infected Americans in Africa to “suffer the consequences.”
Trump’s refusal to fund efforts to fight infectious disease outbreaks overseas combined with his earlier demands that Americans with the disease be barred from the country both indicate the limits of the president’s “isolationist mindset” in fighting Ebola, wrote Megan Jula at Mother Jones.
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“Our best way to keep Americans safe is to find these places overseas so that diseases don’t come here,” Klain told Mother Jones. “There’s just no wall we can build that’s high enough to keep diseases out.”