'Operation United Assistance': Obama to deploy military in Ebola fight

U.S. to send 3,000 military personnel to West Africa

President Obama on Tuesday is expected to announce that 3,000 U.S. military personnel will be deployed to West Africa to help stop the rapidly spreading Ebola outbreak in the region.

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According to data from the World Health Organization, there were 4,336 confirmed cases of Ebola and 2,218 confirmed deaths in West Africa as of Sept. 7.

The international health agency says that controlling the outbreak could take as long as nine months, and the case total could reach 20,000 in that time. However, U.S. experts say the case total could reach 20,000 in just one month and that the outbreak could take as many as 18 months to contain.

The United States has already dispatched 100 CDC experts and spent $175 million in relief efforts—among the largest deployments of CDC personnel in its history.

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White House officials say Obama's proposal, which will be announced at the CDC headquarters in Atlanta, will begin this week and will be called "Operation United Assistance." The proposal calls for:

  • Coordinating U.S. and international aid efforts through one command center;
  • Building 17 health care facilities with 100 beds each;
  • Providing medical equipment and supplies;
  • Training as many as 500 health care workers a week for up to six months;
  • Providing home health care kits to hundreds of thousands of African households, especially in remote areas; and
  • Launching a community-based campaign to train locals on how to interact with Ebola-stricken patients.

The plan will use up to $500 million from existing funds within the Pentagon's budget. The Obama administration also is seeking at least $88 million in addition to the $175 million it has already spent on controlling the outbreak. "I don't want to close the door to potential additional funding," says a senior administration official.

A U.S. Army general will arrive in Monrovia, Liberia, this week to set up the command center and "provide command and control to support the U.S. military activities and to facilitate coordination with the U.S. government interagency and international relief efforts," according to White House officials.

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But experts say it will be a "couple of weeks" before the military has enough staff on the ground to launch many of its efforts, such as health care worker training.

"The problem is, for every single thing we're doing, we're racing against the virus, and the virus has the high ground right now," says Laurie Garrett, Ebola expert and senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. She adds, "I would hope this would reduce transmission, but it's all about how fast people can get there and get the job done. If it takes weeks to mobilize, the strategy won't even be within reach."

But overall, Garrett says the plan represents "a really significant response on the military side… This is really beginning to seem like a game-changer."

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The United Nations and Doctors Without Borders on Sept. 2 made urgent appeals for international aid, citing the uncontrollable nature of the virus. CDC Director Tom Frieden echoed them, saying, "The outbreak is so overwhelming that what it requires now is an overwhelming response… As long as Ebola is spreading anywhere, all of us need to be concerned."

HHS also announced in early September that it has accelerated the development of drugs to treat Ebola under a $24.9 million contract with Mapp Biopharmaceutical, the company that produced the experimental serum Zmapp that was used to treat to American health workers with Ebola. It appears that the serum helped two infected workers, but there is still limited data on its safety and efficacy, HHS's Nicole Lurie cautions (McKay, Wall Street Journal, 9/16; Sun/Eilperin, Washington Post, 9/16; Johnson, Modern Healthcare, 9/16 [subscription required]; AP/NPR, 9/16).

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