The United States is ready to take leadership for a global response to the deadly Ebola virus that is ravaging West Africa, President Barack Obama said Tuesday, as he announced plans to send thousands of U.S. troops to the region. (Click here to read President Obama's remarks on Ebola)
“Faced with this outbreak, the world is looking to us, the United States, and it’s a responsibility that we embrace, we are prepared to take leadership on this, to provide the type of capabilities that only America has and mobilize our resources in ways that only America can do,” he said.
The initiative, announced by Obama at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, comes as the virus has infected more than 5,000 people in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria and Senegal.
Liberia has been the hardest hit, accounting for about half of the more than 2,500 deaths, according to the World Health Organization.
Under the U.S. plan, 3,000 U.S. troops will be sent to a new command center in Liberia's capital, Monrovia, to help with the transportation of supplies and other personnel.
U.S. forces will construct 17 health care facilities of 100 beds each to isolate and treat victims. The U.S. mission will also set up a facility to train 500 health care workers per week.
“An already very weak public health system is near collapse in these (West African) countries. Patients are being turned away and people are literally dying in the streets,” Obama said. “Here’s the hard truth: in West Africa, Ebola is now an epidemic of the likes we have not seen before. It's spiraling out of control, it is getting worse, it’s spreading faster and exponentially.”
Outbreak could spread
The number of people infected could grow to tens or even hundreds of thousands, he warned, if the outbreak isn’t stopped now.
That would mean “profound political and economic and security implications for all of us,” he said. “This is an epidemic that is not just a threat to regional security, it’s a threat to global security if these countries break down, if their economics break down, if people panic. And that has a profound effect on all of us, even if we are not directly contracting the disease.”
Dr. Kent Brantly, an American doctor who survived Ebola, told a U.S. Senate hearing on Tuesday said there's no time to waste in ramping up the response to the epidemic in West Africa.
"We can't afford to wait months, or even weeks, to take action, to put people on the ground," Brantly said.
At a packed Senate hearing, the CDC's Dr. Beth Bell told senators the outbreak is "ferocious and spreading exponentially."
"If we do not act now to stop Ebola, we could be dealing with it for years to come," she warned.
In Liberia, the U.S. Agency for International Development — the government’s lead international aid agency — will also hand out protection kits and train people to protect themselves and their families. The effort will initially target the 400,000 most vulnerable households in Liberia, and then expand to cover the entire country and the region.
The World Health Organization has said it needs foreign medical teams with 500-600 experts as well as at least 10,000 local health workers.
So far Cuba and China have said they will send medical staff to Sierra Leone. Cuba will deploy 165 people in October.
China is sending a mobile laboratory with 59 staff to speed up testing for the disease. It already has 115 staff and a Chinese-funded hospital there.
Criticism of international efforts
The announcement also comes as medical aid agencies, development specialists and some African officials have grumbled that the Obama administration’s response has been inadequate, particularly given the potential for havoc in poor, post-conflict countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone.
The United States, in particular, drew criticism last week when it promised to set up a 25-bed field hospital in Liberia, the country hardest hit by the outbreak. Many thought the contribution was paltry, given that experts were saying Liberia needed at least 500 more treatment beds.
Liberia President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf last week appealed directly to the Obama administration for help, saying, "Without more direct help from your government, we will lose this battle against Ebola.”
"Only governments like yours have the resources and assets to deploy at the pace required to arrest the spread," Sirleaf wrote in her letter.
Ahead of Obama announcement, Joanne Liu, president of the aid group Médecins Sans Frontières, told a U.N. panel in Geneva that the international community’s response to date has been inadequate.
“Today, the response to Ebola continues to fall dangerously behind,” Liu said in prepared remarks.
“The window of opportunity to contain this outbreak is closing. We need more countries to stand up, we need greater deployment, and we need it now. This robust response must be coordinated, organized and executed under clear chain of command," she said.
The U.N. Security Council, meanwhile, was scheduled to hold an emergency meeting on the crisis on Thursday. Diplomats said it will only be the second public health crisis discussed by the council, which discussed the AIDS pandemic in 2000.
"I don't need to tell any of you how unusual Security Council debates on public health issues and public health crises are,” U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power said, “but at this moment it is crucial that council members discuss the status of the epidemic, confer on a coordinated international response, and begin the process of marshaling our collective resources to stop the spread of the disease.”
In a recent interview with NBC, Obama said while Ebola does not pose an imminent threat to Americans, containing the outbreak is a top national security priority.
“Quite frankly, ladies and gentlemen, this health crisis we're facing is unparalleled in modern times,” WHO Assistant Director General Bruce Aylward told reporters in Geneva. “We don't know where the numbers are going on this.”
The ability of Liberia and Sierra Leone to continue their recovery after years of civil conflict, and deliver the necessities of daily life for their people is in danger, Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos said.
“And, that is why we must act now, if we want to avoid greater humanitarian consequences in the future,” Amos said.
“First, we must prevent the complete collapse of health systems in the affected countries. Already, it is estimated that more people have died from secondary aspects. For example, malaria, tuberculosis or in childbirth or from chronic illnesses then have died from Ebola,” she said.