Updated at 4:34 p.m. ET
The United States is dramatically escalating its efforts to combat the spread of Ebola in West Africa, President Barack Obama announced Tuesday, during a visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
The unprecedented response will include the deployment of 3,000 U.S. military forces and more than $500 million in defense spending drawn from funding normally used for efforts like the war in Afghanistan, senior administration officials outlined Monday. Obama has called America’s response to the disease a “national-security priority,” with top foreign policy and defense officials leading the government’s efforts.
The officials said Obama believes that in order to best contain the disease, the U.S. must “lead” the global response effort. In the CDC’s largest deployment in response to an epidemic, more than 100 officials from the agency are currently on the ground and $175 million has been allocated to West Africa to help combat the spread of Ebola. Those efforts will be expanded with the assistance of U.S. Africa Command, which will deploy logistics, command and control, medical, and engineering resources to affected countries.
Officials said that the Department of Defense is seeking to “reprogram” $500 million in funding from the department’s “overseas contingency operations” fund to assist in the response. Obama has also requested another $88 million from Congress for the U.S. response, including $58 million to expedite the development of experimental treatments for Ebola.
The Pentagon will deliver 130,000 sets of personal protective equipment, thousands of kits used to test for the disease, two additional mobile lab units (one is already on the ground), and a 25-bed mobile hospital to the region. In addition, Africa Command engineers will construct additional treatment units, while the others set up a training center for to educate up to 500 health workers per week. The United States Agency for International Development will also airlift tens of thousands of home health kits and protection kits, including disinfectants and protective equipment, to be delivered to communities affected by the outbreak.
The U.S. effort, named Operation United Assistance, will be based out of Monrovia, Liberia, the country hardest hit by the Ebola epidemic and where the disease is currently spreading fastest, and will be commanded by an Army general. Obama’s announcement follows weeks of calls from global health organizations that global assistance, in particular American help, is needed to address the disease.
The World Health Organization announced last week that as of Sept. 7, there have been 4,366 confirmed, suspected, or probable cases of the disease, with 2,218 deaths. More troubling is the pace of infections, which has steadily risen despite local, regional, and international containment efforts. The WHO has predicted “thousands” of new infections in the coming weeks, calling on the global community to make an “exponential increase” in its response efforts.
U.S. officials have maintained that there is a minimal threat to the United States from the disease, but Obama warned in an interview earlier this month with NBC’s Meet The Press that failing to act could elevate the risk to the nation. “If we don’t make that effort now, and this spreads not just through Africa but other parts of the world, there’s the prospect then that the virus mutates,” Obama said. “It becomes more easily transmittable. And then it could be a serious danger to the United States.”
While the affected countries have imposed screenings at their airports to stop infected individuals from boarding aircraft, U.S. officials outlined efforts to build up detection and prevention capabilities at home, including new training efforts for airline employees and flight attendants to spot ill passengers. Customs and Border Protection officers manning ports of entry to the U.S. have also received additional training to spot potentially infected travelers. Currently the disease can only be spread by direct contact with the bodily fluids of infected patients.
U.S. officials said that in addition to the potential for the disease to spread to the U.S., they are concerned by economic, security, and political instability in countries heavily affected by the outbreak.
Earlier this month, Obama released a video to the people of West Africa, raising awareness about the disease.