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Promised Help To Fight Ebola Arriving At 'Speed Of A Turtle'

Five ambulances, donated by the U.S. to help combat Ebola, are lined up after a ceremony attended by Sierra Leone's president, Ernest Bai Koroma, in Freetown on Sept. 10. (AP)

Health officials have warned that if aid doesn't arrive soon to West Africa, more than a million people could be infected with Ebola by late January.

Last week President Obama announced plans for a surge in U.S. aid to the region. The U.K. and the European Union followed suit.

The United Nations is also gearing up to provide aid. Representatives from member states met Thursday at the U.N. General Assembly to tackle the crisis.

The big question has been: How long will it take to turn these promises of aid into action on the ground?

"The United Nations is moving at lightning speed to bring a response on the ground to meet the challenges posed by this terrible disease," said Tony Banbury, who oversees the emergency operations center for the Ebola crisis.

The agencies are now ready to ship 2 million sets of personal protective gear for health workers and other badly needed equipment, Banbury told reporters.

"We are moving 470 4-by-4 vehicles in the region," he said. "We have five helicopters on the way, and we are going up to possibly 18. We are moving aircraft in the region."

But he didn't say how long all of this would take.

President Obama told the gathering that the U.S. had built a command center to run its aid operation in Liberia. It's planning to provide 1,700 treatment beds there.

But, he said, much more work needs to be done by other countries.

"There is still a significant gap between where we are and where we need to be," Obama said. "We know from experience that the response to an outbreak of this magnitude has to be fast, and it has to be sustained. It's a marathon, but you have to run it like a sprint."

The World Bank announced another $170 million to help fight Ebola in West Africa. And France and others also announced new aid pledges.

But the president of Doctors Without Borders, Joanne Liu, said that rhetoric needs to be translated into actions.

So far the promised surge in aid hasn't happened, she says. "We still don't have enough beds in isolation. We still do not have enough actors. ... So, yes, everybody in their intentions are moving fast, but in the field we are moving at the speed of a turtle."

Liu gives one example of just how desperate the situation is at an Ebola treatment center run by Doctors Without Borders in Liberia's capital of Monrovia: "Every morning we only open one of our centers for 30 minutes, just to admit people who can fill in the beds of the people who died overnight. This is how bad it is. And the rest of the day, we are turning patients back home to go and infect their neighbors and loved ones. So this is not at all under control."

Countries most affected by the Ebola outbreak say their economies are suffering. Liberia's president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, said the country has been isolated, with airlines canceling flights and shipping companies avoiding Liberian ports.

"Partners and friends, based on understandable fears, have ostracized us," Sirleaf said. "And the world has taken some time to fully understand the enormity of our challenges. We are fighting back," she added.

Sierra Leone's president, Ernest Bai Koroma, joined the meeting by video. He said the world seems to understand now that Ebola is a challenge to everyone.

"Sierra Leone and its sister republics may be at the front lines of this fight," Koroma said. "But we require the heavy aerial and ground support of the world to defeat a disease worse than terrorism."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

One question for world leaders is whether they're doing enough to contain Ebola. Western nations say they have offered help to West Africa. President Obama says a U.S. command center is up and running in Liberia. The U.N. is also gearing up, and aid workers say they're still overwhelmed. NPR's Michele Kelemen has more from the United Nations.

(SOUNDBITE OF U.N. MEETING)

TONY BANBURY: So big day today.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: On the 15th floor of the U.N. secretariat, Tony Banbury oversees an emergency operation center for the Ebola crisis. Officials from across the U.N. sit with laptops open around a conference table and get a briefing from U.N. envoy David Nabarro about the commitments made at a high-level gathering on the sidelines of the General Assembly.

DAVID NABARRO: Lovely, positive stuff from South Africa - nice, meaty things - filled hospital with 40 beds, 604,000 PPE and so on and so forth.

KELEMEN: Nabarro tells them as long as everyone pulls their resources, the Ebola virus doesn't stand a chance. Banbury, the head of the emergency response team, told reporters earlier in the day that he thinks the U.N. is moving at, quote, "lightning speed" and is ready to ship 2 million sets of personal protective gear and other badly needed equipment to West Africa.

BANBURY: We're moving 470 four-by-four vehicles into the region. We have 5 helicopters on the way, and we're going up to possibly 18. We're moving aircraft into the region.

KELEMEN: He didn't say how long that would take. President Obama told the U.N. meeting that much more work needs to be done.

(SOUNDBITE OF U.N. MEETING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We know from experience that the response to an outbreak of this magnitude has to be fast, and it has to be sustained. It's a marathon, but you have to run it like a sprint.

KELEMEN: Countries most affected by the Ebola outbreak say their economies are suffering too. Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf says her nation has been isolated, with airlines canceling flights and shipping companies avoiding Liberian ports.

(SOUNDBITE OF U.N. MEETING)

PRESIDENT ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Partners and friends, based on understandable fears, have ostracized us. And the world has taken some time to fully appreciate and adequately respond to the enormity of our tragedy. We are fighting back.

KELEMEN: Sierra Leone's president, Ernest Bai Koroma, who also joined the meeting via video hookup, says the world seems to understand now that Ebola is a challenge to everyone.

(SOUNDBITE OF U.N. MEETING)

PRESIDENT ERNEST BAI KOROMA: Sierra Leone and its sister republics may be at the front lines of this fight, but we require the heavy aerial and ground support of the world to defeat a disease worse than terrorism.

KELEMEN: The World Bank announced another $170 million to help fight Ebola in West Africa. France and others also announced new aid pledges. But the president of Doctors Without Borders, Joanne Liu, says so far, the promised surge in aid hasn't happened.

JOANNE LIU: We still don't have enough beds in isolation. We still don't have enough actors. We're still having difficulty to do medevac when one - when we have one of our staff infected. So yes, everybody in their intention are going - moving fast in their mind. But in the field, we move at the speed of a turtle.

KELEMEN: She gives one example of just how desperate the situation is at a medical center in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia.

LIU: Every morning, we only open one of our centers 30 minutes, just to admit people that can fill in the bed of the people who have died overnight. So this is how bad it is. And the rest of the day, we are turning back patient home to go to infect their loved ones and neighbors. So this is not at all under control.

KELEMEN: And the predictions are alarming, Liu says, with the possibility that half a million people could be infected by Ebola by December. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the United Nations. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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