The Complex

As Ebola Spreads to U.S., Pentagon Deploys More Troops to Africa to Fight Outbreak

This post has been updated. The U.S. military is quickly ramping up its response to the Ebola crisis, sending 3,200 U.S. soldiers to help affected countries in West Africa, where the disease has already killed at least 3,400 people since the first case was documented in December. Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said on ...

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images
Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

This post has been updated.

The U.S. military is quickly ramping up its response to the Ebola crisis, sending 3,200 U.S. soldiers to help affected countries in West Africa, where the disease has already killed at least 3,400 people since the first case was documented in December.

Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said on Friday that up to 4,000 troops are now authorized for deployment, though that number could climb if commanders there decide they need more help. The growing military response shows that the Obama administration, which only two weeks ago said that it would send up to 3,000 troops, is trying to get an increasingly dangerous situation under control.

As the U.S. military steps up its efforts, it’s also preparing for the event that one of its troops contracts the disease.

Before deploying, troops are being taught about Ebola and its symptoms, Kirby said. They will also be monitored constantly during their deployment to make sure they aren’t developing symptoms.

"There’s no expectation at all that our troops are going to be working in high-risk areas or in or near or close to Ebola patients," Kirby said. "That doesn’t mean that the threat is completely eliminated."

On Friday, Howard University Hospital in Washington, D.C., said that it is treating a patient with Ebola-like symptoms who recently traveled to Nigeria, which has confirmed 19 Ebola cases and seven deaths. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell said at a White House briefing that the Howard patient’s tests hadn’t come back yet. On the same day, Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Rockville, Maryland, said one of its patients had tested positive for a different illness but showed Ebola-like symptoms and was being evaluated for the disease.

Earlier in the week, the first patient outside of Africa was diagnosed with the deadly virus. Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian citizen, is hospitalized in Dallas and his family is quarantined in their apartment. And an American working as a cameraman for NBC in Liberia has also tested positive for the disease and is being flown back to the United States for treatment.

U.S. health officials on Friday sought to downplay the threat Ebola poses to people living in the United States. "The system that’s in place with our healthcare infrastructure would make it extraordinarily unlikely that we would have an outbreak," Anthony Fauci, director of the NIH’s Infectious Disease Institute, said during the White House briefing. "The situation in West Africa has been very difficult largely due to the lack of an adequate health infrastructure to deal with the outbreak."

Friday’s briefing came after widespread criticism over how the Texas Ebola case has been handled. Prior to being diagnosed with Ebola, Duncan had visited a hospital but had been allowed to leave after doctors failed to realize that he may have become infected with Ebola. Fauci acknowledged that "there were things that did not go the way they should have in Dallas" and said he would wouldn’t be surprised if there were more Ebola cases diagnosed in the United States.

"We recognize the concern that even a single case of Ebola creates on our shores," HHS Secretary Burwell said. "But we have the public health systems and the public health providers in place to contain the spread of this disease."

This is the world’s largest Ebola outbreak. The disease spread relatively slowly at first, but over the last few weeks the number of cases, especially in Liberia and Sierra Leone, have rapidly increased. Hospitals and health-care workers are completely overwhelmed and officials are talking about potential economic collapse in hot-zone countries. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last month that in a worst-case scenario, there could be 1.4 million cases by Jan. 20 if the disease is not contained.

Meanwhile, 230 American troops deployed in West Africa are building Ebola treatment centers as fast as they can but face staggering logistical problems. Most U.S. military soldiers are in Monrovia, Liberia, which, along with Guinea and Sierra Leone, is hardest hit by the epidemic.

A small group of 26 U.S. military personnel is in Senegal helping establish an intermediate staging base for troops and supplies, Kirby said.

The U.S. troops headed to West Africa are from U.S. bases all over the country. For the most part, they’re medical staff, logisticians, and engineers. Ten soldiers from the 20th Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosives Command at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, will deploy to provide medical-laboratory support.

But the Pentagon has made clear that no U.S. military personnel will directly treat Ebola patients. Instead, they’re being sent to set up hospitals and treatment centers and train health-care workers.

Kirby said that two Ebola-testing laboratories, manned by personnel from the U.S. Naval Medical Research Center, are now operational in Monrovia. The labs can test about 100 samples per day, he said.

U.S. military personnel will handle Ebola samples at these facilities, but they are trained lab technicians and will not interact with stricken patients, Kirby stressed.

Liberia and Sierra Leone sorely lack labs capable of testing for Ebola. The World Health Organization has warned that dearth has hampered efforts to obtain an accurate, timely count of the number of infected victims.

There is also a severe shortage of hospital beds in both countries, leaving patients to die outside treatment centers or at home, where they can infect family members and neighbors. The medical relief agency Doctors Without Borders says all aspects of the response have critical gaps, including medical care, health-care worker training, contact tracing, and community education and mobilization.

The United States, along with other countries, is trying to address these shortfalls, but international aid organizations that have been working in the hot zone since the epidemic began say the response has been irresponsibly slow.

The Pentagon is developing protocols for what happens if a member of the military develops Ebola-like symptoms or contracts the virus, which has a 50 percent mortality rate. The service member will be observed for a time before the military decides whether to reintegrate him or her back into the unit, Kirby said. "We could be looking at a period of observation for up to 21 days if we think that a member of the military might have been exposed."

Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. Twitter: @K8brannen
Justine Drennan was a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously reported from Cambodia for the Associated Press and other outlets. Twitter: @jkdrennan

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