US pledges military support for fight against Ebola in West Africa | Africa | DW | 16.09.2014

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US pledges military support for fight against Ebola in West Africa

In an effort to contain the Ebola outbreak, the US plans to dispatch thousands of military personnel to assist health care workers in West Africa. Governments in the region have been overwhelmed by the epidemic.

US President Barack Obama announced plans on Tuesday to deploy 3,000 American military personnel to West Africa, part of a ramped up international campaign to contain the most severe outbreak of the Ebola virus in history.

Speaking at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, Obama said that the US personnel would provide desperately needed medical and logistical support to countries in the region. The American military detachment will have its headquarters in Liberia's capital, Monrovia.

"[Ebola is] a global threat and demands a truly global response," the US president said at CDC headquarters.

"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.

"The world has a responsibility to act...[and] we have to act fast," he added. "Men, women and children [in West Africa] are just sitting, waiting to die. And it doesn't have to be this way."

Faced with Ebola's unprecedented spread, Doctors Without Borders has been requesting emergency military assistance for weeks now, softening its normally skeptical attitude toward working with the world's armed services.

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"Although we have not yet seen the official details, we welcome the ambition of the new US Ebola response plan, which appears to match the scope of the disaster unfolding in West Africa," Brice de le Vingne, director of operations at Doctors Without Borders, said prior to Obama's speech.

"This latest pledge, alongside those from a handful of other countries, needs to be put into action immediately," he added.

But Doctors Without Borders - known by its French acronym MSF - has made clear that military personnel should not be used for crowd control or quarantine, warning that such measures would only trigger fear among the people.

'Huge logistical problems'

The US aims to train 500 health care workers a week and build 17 new treatment centers throughout the region with a capacity of 100 beds each. In addition, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) is providing Ebola prevention kits. USAID is expected to deliver 50,000 such kits this week.

"On the ground, the issues facing the MSF responders are huge logistical problems," Laurie Garrett, an expert on public health and foreign policy, told DW. "Roads are needed, supplies are needed, almost all the commercial air carriers have ceased flying into the countries. So there's air force contingency needs.

"There is no force on the planet, private or public, that can outdo the United States military for basic logistics, supply and deployment," said Garrett, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Beyond logistics, the US military also has special capabilities to deal with hazardous materials.

"The military has always had specially trained personnel that deal with weapons of mass destruction and are trained to work inside of hazmat suits and protective gear," Garrett said.

So far, Washington has spent $100 million (77 million euros) in response to the Ebola outbreak. President Obama has asked Congress to provide an additional $88 million to fight the virus in the coming weeks. The World Health Organization (WHO) has said that $600 million is needed to fight the outbreak.

Threat of political instability

According to the WHO, the health care institutions in West Africa have been overwhelmed by the exponential increase in new Ebola cases. Liberia has been the hardest hit, with nearly 2,000 infections and more than 1,000 deaths, a fatality rate of 58 percent. Guinea and Sierra Leone are also in the grips of the outbreak.

The WHO estimates that 1,000 hospital beds are "urgently needed for the treatment of currently infected Ebola patients" in Liberia's Montserrado County, where Monrovia is located. The county has a current capacity of just 240 beds in treatment centers and plans to add a mere 260 more. Taken together, that covers only half the demand expected in the coming weeks.

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"As soon as a new Ebola treatment facility is opened, it immediately fills to overflowing with patients, pointing to a large but previously invisible caseload," the WHO said in a September 8 report on the situation in Liberia. "The number of new cases is moving far faster than the capacity to manage them in Ebola-specific treatment centers," the report warned.

As a consequence, many patients are being turned away due to a lack of capacity and then return to their homes, where they infect others. According to Garrett, Washington is concerned that as the disease spreads it could undermine West Africa's already fragile political stability.

"As Ebola spreads in this region, it's clearly destabilizing," Garrett said. "There's a real threat that the governments themselves will collapse. They're hanging on by fingernails. They were weak governments to begin with."

Emergency Security Council meeting

Meanwhile, the US ambassador to the United Nations has called an emergency Security Council meeting for Thursday. The Security Council, whose remit is international security, rarely addresses public health crises.

"The trendlines in this crisis are grave, and without immediate international action we are facing the potential for a public health crisis that could claim lives on scale far greater than current estimates, and set the countries of West Africa back a generation," US Ambassador Samantha Power told reporters on Monday.

"We can contain this," Power said. "We know how to do it, and we must avoid panic and fear, but our collective response to date has not been sufficient. We must move forward aggressively in a coordinated fashion."