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Britain, US are in Africa fighting Ebola. Will Europe join them?

Critics say the EU is too wrapped up in stopping Ebola at its borders, rather than confronting the disease at its source in West Africa. But Europe is starting to stir.

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Paris airport doctors stand at the plane's arrivals bridge during a press visit at the Charles de Gaulle International Airport outside Paris today. France will begin screening air passengers for Ebola on Saturday if they arrive on flights from regions hit by the disease.

Philippe Wojazer/Reuters

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As the EU scrambles to coordinate efforts to prevent the spread of Ebola at home, health workers are warning that Europe's focus on stopping the disease at the borders may detract from a more important goal: fighting the disease at its source, in West Africa.

Already Europe has been criticized in some corners for not moving more quickly as the virus spread in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone – particularly as the US pledged to send in 3,000 military troops in September.

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The European Union has pledged $226 million, and individual member states are providing their own range of support. But only Britain has come close to providing as many personnel as the US to fight the epidemic in Africa, where those on the front lines say manpower is most needed.

Britains's foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, told Christian Science Monitor editors last week in Boston that money was not lacking in anti-Ebola efforts. “What we really need is people," he said. Specifically: doctors, nurses, and medical staff to man the six-week shifts involved in running field hospitals.

Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym MSF, has called for countries to deploy their militaries as the quickest route to setting up the urgently needed treatment centers.

Natalia Alonso, Oxfam’s deputy director of advocacy and campaigns, specifically faulted Europe for being “more concerned about its border controls rather than what it should be doing to contain the spread of the disease in West Africa.”

“Europe needs to get serious by deploying more medical staff and equipment as well as military personnel in the next two weeks," she said in a statement released Thursday. "Otherwise, the EU will miss a very narrow window of opportunity to halt this epidemic.” 

'Tackle the virus at its roots'

The EU, which has long viewed itself as a global leader in humanitarian efforts, has acknowledged the limitations of its own response and called for a more “ambitious and more effective EU collective engagement” in an internal paper that circulated last week. 

Claus Sorensen, the director general of the EU’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO) agency, admits that European nations, like many around the world, have been “behind the curve.”

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But the European response has been complicated by publics who are worried about Ebola being imported into the region, after the first case of transmission outside Africa appeared in Spain. It finds itself struggling to coordinate containment measures while trying not to incite fear among the general population, says Andrew Rettman, who covers EU foreign policy in Brussels for the EUobserver.

As most health experts have said, the chances of an outbreak are low in Europe. Mr. Sorensen says the most important thing the EU can do now is to have “a genuine and open-minded discussion with the general public" to educate them about the risks – and convince them that action is needed in Africa. "The real solution is to tackle the virus at its roots. We can’t just close borders.… If we pull back there is a much greater chance of the epidemic spreading.”

Ebola fears could prompt some European governments to step up their response, Iza Ciglenecki, an epidemiologist and member of the MSF Ebola response team in Geneva, says, "but the fear is that it might also have the opposite effect: That you put maximum measures in Europe and ignore what is happing in Africa.”

Logistical hurdles

Sorensen says Europe's initial response in Africa was slow, but that it is getting up to speed now. US and British personnel in West Africa are doing a "fantastic job," he says, but France and Germany are stepping up as well. The Guardian reports that Germany is deploying a 300-bed field hospital, and France plans to establish a treatment center in Guinea, its former colony.

But there are serious logistical hurdles to deploying medical personnel in and out of Africa, he adds. Though there are many volunteers, he says, proper aircraft for evacuating those infected with Ebola are scarce – a problem the Europeans hope to solve by borrowing planes from the US.

And despite Europe's increasing willingness to provide humanitarian aid, its lack of a military to deploy that aid complicates matters.

“Typically [our missions are in] conflict situations where we stay neutral and we want to deliver aid using civilian means," Sorensen says. "This is a very very different situation.... You need classic humanitarian aid but also lifting capability and logistics. It is military and humanitarian and health and education."