Ebola: Obama orders US military to West Africa

Obama has sent US military personnel to train healthcare workers and deliver field hospitals. (Reuters)

Obama has sent US military personnel to train healthcare workers and deliver field hospitals. (Reuters)

An American doctor who survived Ebola said there is no time to waste as President Barack Obama outlined his plan to ramp up the US 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,” Dr Kent Brantly told senators on Tuesday. Obama called the Ebola crisis a threat to world security as he ordered up to 3 000 US military personnel to the region along with an aggressive effort to train healthcare workers and deliver field hospitals. 

Under the plan, the government could end up devoting $1-billion to containing the disease that has already killed at least 2 400 people. “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,” Obama said after briefings in Atlanta with doctors from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and from Emory University, where Brantly and two other aid workers with Ebola have been treated. 

Before Tuesday, Washington had sent around 100 health officials and committed about $175-million in aid. Other nations, including Cuba, China, France and Britain, have pledged medical workers, health centres and other forms of support.

Cuba is to send 165 healthcare workers to West Africa to help in the battle against the world’s worst ever epidemic of the Ebola virus, the country’s health minister said on Friday.

Obama this week acted under pressure from regional leaders and international aid organisations who pleaded for a heightened US role in confronting the deadly virus. He called on other countries to supply more health workers, equipment and money quickly.

“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.
At least 2 400 people have died, with Liberia bearing the brunt. 

‘Daunting’ task
He described the task ahead as “daunting” but said what gives him hope is that “the world knows how to fight this disease”. Topping the new aid, the US has promised to deliver 17 treatment centres with 100 beds in each to Liberia, where contagious patients often sit in the streets, turned away from packed Ebola units. 

The Pentagon expects to have the first treatment units open within a few weeks, part of a heightened US response that includes training more local healthcare workers. “This massive ramp-up of support from the United States is precisely the kind of transformational change we need to get a grip on the outbreak and begin to turn it around,” said World Health Organisation (WHO) director general Margaret Chan. 

Medecins sans Frontieres, which has sounded the alarm for months, welcomed the US scale-up but said it needed to be put into action immediately and that other countries must follow suit. “The response to Ebola continues to fall dangerously behind and too many lives are being lost,” said Brice de le Vingne, the medical humanitarian aid organisation’s director of operations. 

“We need more countries to stand up, we need greater concrete action on the ground, and we need it now.” Nearly 5 000 people have become ill from Ebola in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Nigeria and Senegal since it was first recognised in March. WHO says it anticipates that figure could rise to more than 20 000 and end up costing nearly $1-billion to contain. 

The UN Security Council will hold an emergency meeting on the crisis on Thursday, and the head of the United Nations said the General Assembly will follow up with a high-level meeting next week as the world body “is taking the lead now” on the international fight. 

‘Bold and courageous’
UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon welcomed Obama’s plan, according to his spokesperson, and called on the international community “to be as bold and courageous in its response as those who are on the front lines fighting this disease”.

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 said. Congress still must vote on an Obama administration request for $88-million more to help the Ebola fight, including funding CDC work in West Africa through December and speeding up development of experimental treatments and vaccines. 

The US has spent more than $100-million already fighting the outbreak. Obama administration officials said some of the costs of the new military response would be covered by $500-million in overseas contingency operations, such as the war in Afghanistan, that the Pentagon has asked Congress to redirect for West Africa and for humanitarian assistance in Iraq. 

Late on Tuesday, the Obama administration submitted a request to reprogramme another $500-million in Pentagon money for the Ebola effort. Republican Senator Lamar Alexander said urgent action was needed. 

“We must take the dangerous, deadly threat of the Ebola epidemic as seriously as we take Isis,” he said, referring to the extremist group in Syria and Iraq. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the 3 000 troops would not provide direct care for Ebola patients. – Sapa-AP

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