President Barack Obama, noting the decline in the number of new Ebola cases in West Africa, said Wednesday that nearly all of the remaining 1,300 American troops currently fighting the outbreak in the affected countries would return home.
At the height of the epidemic, some 2,800 U.S. military personnel were deployed to West Africa to help contain the virus, which so far has claimed more than 9,000 lives in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Now, nearly five months after Obama committed troops to help stem the outbreak, he said all but 100 would be home by April 30.
The announcement was made "not to declare mission accomplished, but to mark a transition," Obama said. "Thanks to the hard work of our nearly 3,000 troops who deployed to West Africa, logistics have been set up, Ebola treatment units have been built [and] over 1,500 African health workers have been trained.”
Flanked by health care workers, members of the U.S. military and Ebola survivors, Obama thanked those on the front lines of the fight and emphasized that while the United States was winding down its military response, it was expanding its civilian response.
In the 10 months since the first American personnel deployed to West Africa, the president said, the U.S. has helped treat Ebola patients, trace their contacts, promote safe burials and galvanized the international response.
He said the number of new cases in the region had gone from nearly a 1,000 a week in October to roughly 150 per week today.
“Our focus now is getting to zero," Obama said. "Because as long as there is even one case of Ebola that’s active out there, risks still exist. Every case is an ember that, if not contained, can light a new fire.”
This message was reinforced this week by Dr. David Nabarro, the U.N. special envoy on Ebola, while referencing a recent uptick of new cases in Guinea.
“The outbreak still presents a grave threat," he said, "and we really hope that there will be no complacency in anybody involved in the response.”
Nabarro said that in addition to getting the number of cases and transmissions to zero, affected countries would also have to focus on rebuilding their economies and their health systems.