Under pressure to boost the U.S. response to the Ebola crisis, President Barack Obama is ordering 3,000 military personnel to West Africa amid worries that the financial and human cost of the outbreak is rapidly growing.
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The military response is part of a heightened U.S. role that will include erecting new treatment and isolation facilities, training health care workers and increasing communications and transportation support, officials said.
"Here's the hard truth. In West Africa, Ebola is now an epidemic, the likes that we have not seen before. It's spiralling out of control, it's getting worse," Obama said after meeting with top U.S. public health officials.
Obama was announcing the stepped-up effort Tuesday during a visit to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta following appeals for a greater U.S. effort to confront the crisis and alarm that the Ebola virus could spread and even mutate into a more easily transmitted disease.
"It's a potential threat to global security if these countries break down," Obama said, speaking of the hardest-hit countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea
"If the outbreak is not stopped now, we could be looking at hundreds of thousands of people affected, with profound economic, political and security implications for all of us," he said after outlining new steps being taken by the U.S. to contain the outbreak.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the 3,000 troops would not provide direct care to Ebola patients. A substantial number will be stationed at an intermediate base in Senegal, Earnest said, with others at locations in Liberia where they will provide logistical, training, engineering and other support.
The World Health Organization warned that the number of Ebola cases in West Africa could start doubling every three weeks and that the crisis could end up costing nearly $1 billion to contain. Joanne Liu, president of Doctors Without Borders, said the global response was falling short. "The window of opportunity to contain this outbreak is closing," Liu told a meeting Tuesday at the United Nations in Geneva.
Nearly 5,000 afflicted
Nearly 5,000 people have become ill from Ebola in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Nigeria and Senegal since it was first recognized in March. WHO says it anticipates that figure could rise to more than 20,000. At least 2,400 people have died, with Liberia bearing the brunt.
With the addition of military personnel, administration officials said that the new U.S. initiatives aim to:
- Train as many as 500 health care workers a week.
- Erect 17 health care facilities in the region of 100 beds each.
- Set up a joint command headquartered in Monrovia, Liberia, to co-ordinate between U.S. and international relief efforts.
- Provide home health care kits to hundreds of thousands of households, including 50,000 that the U.S. Agency for International Development will deliver to Liberia this week.
- Carry out a home- and community-based campaign to train local populations on how to handle exposed patients.
Hardest hit by the outbreak are Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. The virus also has reached Nigeria and Senegal. Ebola is spread through direct contact with the bodily fluids of sick patients, making doctors and nurses especially vulnerable to contracting the virus that has no vaccine or approved treatment.
The U.S. effort will include medics and corpsmen for treatment and training, engineers to help erect the treatment facilities and specialists in logistics to assist in patient transportation.
Obama's trip to the CDC comes a day after the United States also demanded a stepped-up international response to the outbreak. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, on Monday called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on Thursday, warning that the potential risk of the virus could "set the countries of West Africa back a generation."
Power said the meeting Thursday would mark a rare occasion when the Security Council, which is responsible for threats to international peace and security, addresses a public health crisis.
The Senate was also weighing in Tuesday with a hearing to examine the U.S. response. An American missionary doctor who survived the disease was among those scheduled to testify.
Four Americans have been or are being treated for Ebola in the U.S. after evacuation from Africa.
The U.S. has spent more than $100 million responding to the outbreak and has offered to operate treatment centers for patients.
UN 'taking the lead' on international efforts
Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says that the world body is "taking the lead now" on international efforts to fight the Ebola outbreak in West Africa that has killed some 2,400 people and could spread further.
He also said at a press briefing Tuesday that the UN General Assembly next week will follow-up with a high-level meeting. First an emergency meeting will be held Thursday in which Ban and the World Health Organization director plan to "outline the international action plan to contain this threat."
Ban also said he has urged leaders in the most affected countries to establish centers that isolate infected people from their relatives to stop the spread of Ebola.
West Africa's Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea have been hardest hit by Ebola.