Senator Tom Harkin says it’s time to focus on building better “public health infrastructure” on the African continent, to help local officials more quickly deal with health threats like the current Ebola epidemic.

“So when an outbreak happens like this, they don’t have the labs, they don’t have the technicians, they don’t have the public health personnel that are culturally sensitive to people to go out and stop this as soon as it starts,” Harkin says.

Since 1976 there have been 17 outbreaks of Ebola in Africa, but the current outbreak is the largest in history. The United Nations held a meeting in New York City yesterday to discuss the outbreak and the president of “Doctors Without Borders” said the global response to the crisis is “moving at the speed of a turtle.” Harkin says while U.S. health care workers did get to Africa early on to try to contain the spread of the disease, they met resistance.

“And if they weren’t denied access, they were threatened by local people who thought they were coming in to do something to them,” Harkin says. “I mean, you’ve got to think when you’re in a rural village and you don’t even have the basics and some people show up in a truck and they’ve got these space suits on, that can be pretty frightening and so what happened is that local customs like washing the dead like they do and everything — it just spread that virus.”

Harkin is chairman of a senate committee that drafts the budget for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and he is encouraged by last week’s vote in congress to approve $88 million for CDC efforts to fight the Ebola outbreak.

“We’re going to get on top of it,” Harkin says. “I don’t think we should be unduly alarmed in this country right now, but we’ve got to get on top of this a hurry before it starts getting into more and more cities.”

According to Harkin, the outbreak has been exacerbated because many Ebola victims in rural parts of Africa went to get help from relatives in urban centers.

“That’s the place you want someone who’s tested positive for the Ebola virus to be,” Harkin says, “then it just started spreading like mad.”

Harkin visited Africa last year to see for himself how health officials were responding to the AIDS epidemic on the continent. Harkin helped set aside $6 million in federal funds last year to start building facilities in Africa that are similar to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and later this fall the first two locations will be announced.

“I told my colleagues: ‘I’m leaving the Senate, but don’t drop the ball on this one,'” Harkin says. “We’ve got to build these laboratories and these institutions in these countries, so as soon as something break out, they’ve got the right personnel. It’s not me from America, it’s their people. They know how to test. They can do the laboratory work. They can do all that stuff right there.”

Harkin made his comments during a recent appearance on Iowa Public Television.

The Ebola epidemic was first detected this winter in Guinea. It has spread to five West African nations and killed more than 2000 people so far. Four medical missionaries who contracted the virus in Africa were flown back to the U.S. for treatment. Dr. Richard Sacra — the doctor flown to an Omaha hospital’s “biocontainment unit” three weeks ago — was released Thursday morning. During a news conference, he thanked the hospital staff.

“God has used you to restore my life to me. I am so grateful,” Sacra said. “You all have made me feel so welcome here that I am now an official, lifetime Huskers fan. Go Big Red!”

Sacra, who is still very weak, said he realizes he won’t recover overnight. He isn’t ruling out a return to Liberia where he contracted the virus.