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9 of the 11 Ebola treatment centers built by Americans have never seen a single Ebola patient

A holding center for suspected Ebola patients in Liberia.
A holding center for suspected Ebola patients in Liberia.
John Moore Getty Images News

A must-read roundup by Norimitsu Onishi in the New York Times on the impact of the American Ebola response included a fact that perfectly sums up the wrongness of our approach to global health:

"Only 28 Ebola patients have been treated at the 11 treatment units built by the United States military, American officials now say. Nine centers have never had a single Ebola patient."

So: the United States built 11 treatment units in Liberia, drawing from the $1.4 billion allotted for the Ebola mission. Eighty percent of those units have never seen a single Ebola patient.

This may seem shocking, but it actually shouldn't be.

The timelines of global health and short-term-ism of politics are usually not aligned. World leaders react to global health crises slowly (instead of taking a proactive approach), and they prioritize politically expedient (read: ineffective but sexy) fixes over real fixes.

If the world truly wanted to address Ebola and its root causes, the focus of the Ebola response should have been on things like training more health professionals, building up health systems and disease-surveillance networks in the country, and working with countries to prioritize health in their national budgets — all efforts that could take decades and wouldn't immediately produce results for bragging rights.

Many of the investments that would most help West Africa deal with diseases like Ebola wouldn't go to health care at all. They'd go to boosting education (the single biggest predictor of health) and literacy, and building infrastructure (so that people can get to hospitals and clinics when they need to).

These efforts are long-term, less tangible, and a lot more difficult to measure than passing out medicines or building treatment units. But they would undeniably save more lives and drastically improve health.

In an interview with Vox in March, former US Ebola Czar Ron Klain — who, incidentally, bragged about building those treatment units — also shared his very astute views on the wrongness of the current approach to global health crises and how it will eventually catch up to us:

"This constant pattern of responding to these things after the fact is going to result in a disaster, a horrible disaster well beyond Ebola at some point in time in the future. There eventually will be a fast-spreading highly lethal flu that will get out of control and the world won’t have the time we had on Ebola to try to bring it back under control. We’re either going to get that message before it comes or learn after."

This is something Bill Gates and Paul Farmer — two of the biggest heavyweights in global health — have also echoed for years, long before the current epidemic. Now the world just needs to listen before the next one.