The Complex

U.S. Commander Foresees a Yearlong Ebola Effort

The Pentagon’s fight against the Ebola outbreak ravaging West Africa could last a year, the top American general overseeing operations in Africa said Tuesday, marking yet another expansion of the White House’s desperate fight to slow the spread of the deadly virus. The Pentagon has been steadily growing its Ebola effort, saying that up to ...

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Pentagon’s fight against the Ebola outbreak ravaging West Africa could last a year, the top American general overseeing operations in Africa said Tuesday, marking yet another expansion of the White House’s desperate fight to slow the spread of the deadly virus.

The Pentagon has been steadily growing its Ebola effort, saying that up to 4,000 U.S. troops could eventually deploy to West Africa. Already, there are 350 on the ground, with about another 3,000 on their way.

"We’re going to stay as long as we’re needed, but not longer," Gen. David Rodriguez told reporters at the Pentagon.

The troops are leading the Obama administration’s intensifying push to slow the spread of the deadly disease, which has hit Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia particularly hard. The disease has already killed at least 3,400 people since the first case was documented in December. The head of the World Health Organization said last month that the Ebola outbreak was outpacing efforts at containment and warned that "If the situation continues to deteriorate, the consequences can be catastrophic in terms of lost lives but also severe socioeconomic disruption and a high risk of spread to other countries."

The U.S. Agency for International Development and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which are leading the U.S. effort, say that if 70 percent of the people infected with Ebola can get into a treatment center, the disease’s spread can be brought under control, according to Rodriguez.

For the U.S. military, "I’m sure it will be about a year, but that’s just a guess," the general said. "It’s all about the function of the transmission rates and when that curve starts going down."

Rodriguez said it’s going to take until mid-November for the military to build the 17 Ebola treatment centers, each with 100 beds, that it’s planning to construct in Liberia. In addition to those facilities, the U.S. military is deploying a 25-bed field hospital to Monrovia for health care workers to use if they contract the disease.

Rodriguez indicated Tuesday that the mission could still grow as commanders arrive in Liberia and begin to assess the "fast-changing situation." The Pentagon has currently budgeted $750 million for the next six months of the effort, but those costs will also likely climb as new requests come in from the field.

For example, Rodriguez said the U.S. military is considering a request for four more Ebola testing labs to add to the three that are already operational.

It’s inside these labs that U.S. military personnel are coming into closest contact with the disease, handling samples from patients who could be infected. But Rodriguez said the three to four U.S. Naval Medical Research Center personnel who staff these labs are highly trained to handle this kind of material. "This is their primary skill. These are not medical guys trained to do this. This is what they do for a living."

One of the infectious disease labs has been operating in Liberia for years.

Rodriguez emphasized that with the exception of this small contingent of lab personnel, U.S. troops are not expected to come into contact with the disease. Instead, they’re focused on building Ebola treatment units, training medical staff, and providing logistics support.

Rodriguez said the decision not to have U.S. military personnel directly treating patients could be revisited.

"They’ll continue to relook [at] the decision and continue to adapt to what’s required on the ground," Rodriguez said. "We’re filling the demands of the international community and that’s for command and control, engineering support, and logistics, so that’s where we’re focusing our effort and that’s what they’ve asked us for."

When asked Friday at a press briefing at the White House whether the U.S. military has medical professionals who could treat Ebola, Rodriguez answered, "Yes, we do."

To keep its troops safe, the U.S. military is relying on pre-deployment training, personal protective equipment, strict medical and hygiene protocols, and constant monitoring to mitigate the soldiers’ risks of becoming infected.

Rodriguez said the military is particularly looking at the practices of Doctors Without Borders, or MSF as it is commonly known by its French initials, because the organization has been responding to the outbreak since March and has over 3,000 staff working to treat Ebola patients in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Senegal.

The U.S. military does not have a stockpile of ZMapp, an experimental drug that’s been used to treat Ebola, Rodriguez said. However, if a soldier becomes infected with the disease, he or she will be flown back to the United States for treatment.

One of the limiting factors to the U.S. response so far is the capacity of the affected countries — Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea — to absorb the personnel and equipment. In Sierra Leone, there have been reports of desperately needed equipment sitting in shipping containers for up to two months, unable to reach the doctors and patients who need it because of a political fight.

One challenge for the U.S. military is finding places to safely house the troops that it’s sending in. Rodriguez said that in Liberia they will stay at the Defense Ministry or in tent cities at the airfield or at military posts.

Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. @K8brannen

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