ATLANTA (AP) — President Barack Obama called the Ebola outbreak in West Africa a threat to world security on Tuesday and broadly expanded the U.S. response by ordering thousands of troops to the region along with an aggressive effort to train health care workers and build treatment centers.
He called on other countries to quickly supply more helpers, supplies and money.
“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 declared after briefings at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Obama acted under pressure from regional leaders and international aid organizations who pleaded for a heightened U.S. role in confronting the deadly virus, especially in the hardest-hit countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. At least 2,400 people have died, with Liberia bearing the brunt.
The president described people dying in the streets and health care systems near collapse from this latest outbreak.
“In West Africa, Ebola is now an epidemic,” Obama said. “It’s spiraling out of control, it is getting worse.”
At the same time, he offered assurances that the chances of an outbreak in the U.S. are “extremely low.”
The stepped-up U.S. response includes sending 3,000 troops to the region, including medics and corpsmen for treatment and training, engineers to help build treatment facilities and logistics specialists to assist in patient transportation. Troops would not provide direct care to Ebola patients, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. A substantial number will be stationed at an intermediate base in Senegal, with others at locations in Liberia, he said.
Obama also announced that Maj. Gen. Darryl Williams, head of U.S. Army Africa, will head a military command center based in Liberia.
The announcement came the same day the World Health Organization warned that the number of West African Ebola cases could begin doubling every three weeks and that the crisis could end up costing nearly $1 billion to contain.
Joanne Liu, president of Doctors Without Borders, said the global response was falling short. “The window of opportunity to contain this outbreak is closing,” Liu told a meeting Tuesday at the United Nations in Geneva.
Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the WHO, welcomed Obama’s announcement, calling the U.S. offer “precisely the kind of transformational change we need to get a grip on the outbreak and begin to turn it around.”
Nearly 5,000 people have become ill from Ebola in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Nigeria and Senegal since it was first recognized in March. WHO says it anticipates the figure could rise to more than 20,000.
Obama described task ahead as “daunting” but said what gives him hope is that “the world knows how to fight this disease.”
With the addition of military personnel, administration officials said that the new U.S. initiatives aim to:
—Train as many as 500 health care workers a week.
—Erect 17 heath care facilities in Liberia of 100 beds each.
—Set up a joint command headquartered in Monrovia, Liberia, to coordinate U.S. and international relief efforts.
—Provide home health care kits to hundreds of thousands, including 50,000 that the U.S. Agency for International Development will deliver to Liberia this week.
—Carry out a home- and community-based campaign to train local populations on handling exposed patients.
Meanwhile, a Senate panel held a hearing on the outbreak in Washington. Expected to testify were Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr. Kent Brantly, an American physician who contracted Ebola while working in Liberia but recovered after treatment with an experimental drug. Obama met with Brantly at the White House on Tuesday before departing for Atlanta.
Obama administration officials said money for the stepped-up effort to combat the disease would come from $500 million in overseas contingency operations, such as the war in Afghanistan, that the Pentagon already has asked Congress to redirect to carry out humanitarian efforts in Iraq and in West Africa. Officials said it would take about two weeks to get U.S. forces on the ground.
Ebola is spread through direct contact with the bodily fluids of sick patients, making doctors and nurses especially vulnerable to contracting the virus, which has no vaccine or approved treatment.
Obama’s trip came a day after the United States also demanded a stepped-up international response to the outbreak. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, called Monday for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Thursday, warning that the potential risk of the virus could “set the countries of West Africa back a generation.”
Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Erica Werner and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.
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