The U.S. takes ‘command and control’ of Ebola epidemic

President Barack Obama spoke from the Centers for Disease Control today after a debriefing from doctors there.

President Barack Obama announced a surge of U.S. support including hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of military personnel to countries in West Africa suffering from the Ebola epidemic.

“The world has the opportunity to save countless lives. We have the responsibility to act, to step up and do more,” said Obama at the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control.

The effort is a response to UN and World Health Organization (WHO) requests for the United States to take “command and control” of the chaotic situation, a White House senior advisor told press late Monday evening. Over 2,500 people have died so far from Ebola.

“Operation United Assistance,” the name of the mission, will include three thousand military personnel including security forces, medics, and support staff. The Department of Defense has also asked to rededicate $500 million from its overseas budget to fighting the Ebola epidemic. This is in addition to the $175 million the U.S. has already pledged and President Obama has asked for another $88 million.

The mission will focus on building seventeen new Ebola clinics and isolation wards, each with one hundred beds. They will train five hundred local health workers every week on how to help contain Ebola. There is a target 400,000 homes where kits including gloves and disinfected will be distributed. Ultimately, the White House said, the mission’s goal is to provide a backbone in the region for international assistance. The Department of Defense has currently budgeted for the mission to last six months.

The U.S. military has never been used in this kind of disease containment mission before leaving some critics wondering if they’re the right group for the job.

“No one is willing to land airplanes in these countries anymore – the U.S. Air Force can work with Ghana to secure airports and make deliveries, that’s their job description,” said Laurie Garrett, Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Training is another thing the U.S. military is very good at. They are excellent at measuring the degree the information has been absorbed, it’s in their DNA.”

The only downside to the U.S. military taken on this mission according to Garrett is how quickly they can mobilize such a mission. Ebola has already spread dramatically and the WHO expects the number of cases to double every three weeks.

“If the U.S. military can’t break records and defy their own obstacles and get in place and on the ground in record time then we’re looking at a six figure epidemic,” said Garrett. “We could be talking about hundreds of thousands of infections.”

Next Friday President Obama is speaking to the Global Health Security Summit to address some of these shortcomings and how we can fortify the global health security infrastructure.

Laurie Garrett and Lawrence Gostin of Georgetown Law school will appear on PBS NewsHour tonight to analyze the U.S. response.