President Barack Obama on Tuesday came to Atlanta to announce that he is sending thousands of U.S. troops and health personnel to fight the Ebola epidemic sweeping West Africa, painting the crisis as a threat to global security.
“Right now the world has the ability to save countless lives,” Obama told reporters at a briefing at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The world has a responsibility to act.”
He said that if the outbreak is not stopped now, the toll could mount to the hundreds of thousands, with profound impacts on nations’ economies and stability that could reverberate to U.S. shores.
Obama called the plan the largest international response in the history of the CDC. In addition to health workers, the plan calls for a military command center in Liberia to support civilian work across the region, a staging area in Senegal, and a plan to build treatment units and facilities to train hundreds or thousands of local health workers.
It also is to involve an estimated 3,000 U.S. troops. Administration statements emphasized the U.S. military’s expertise in logistics, clearing the decks to move supplies and medical personnel to the right places faster. They made no mention of involvement in activities such as enforcing quarantines.
Dr. Bruce Ribner, who led the Emory University Hospital team that successfully treated Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol and recently took in a third Ebola patient as well, said the medical staff’s meeting with Obama was encouraging.
“I think he has a good handle on what the issues are in both the United States and the Third World,” Ribner said. “I’m very optimistic that we’re starting to get a global response that’s going to get control of this outbreak.”
Others were not so confident.
“It is clearly not enough,” said Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, in an interview with the New York Times Tuesday. “We should see all of West Africa now as one big outbreak. It’s very clear we have to deal with all the areas with Ebola. If the U.S. is not able or not going to do it, that’s all the more reason to say the rest of the world has to do it.”
Criticism has built for weeks that far too little has been done far too slowly. The White House rebuffed it on Tuesday, saying several times that its response began in March and ramped up this summer. But critics have charged that for the most part, nations with advanced medicine left the blooming African crisis in the lap of ill-equipped charities, at least until Americans were infected and brought to this country.
“We’re fighting a forest fire with spray bottles,” wrote Ella Watson-Stryker, who is working in Sierra Leone for Doctors Without Borders. “We see entire villages wiped out… . We separate sick parents from healthy children or the reverse. We listen to the broken-hearted wails of a woman who has lost the last of her 10 children, and then a week later we see her in our triage tent with her small grandson and we watch them die.”
Watson-Stryker’s impassioned essay appeared recently on the nonprofit’s website.
“No one is asking where the rest of the response is,” she wrote. “They don’t question why, after five months of talk, and more than 1,500 known deaths, the epidemic is still raging. They don’t ask, ‘Where is the money donors are pledging? Where are the boots on the ground?’”
People are beginning to ask, particularly if they read the news. CDC director Tom Frieden last month traveled to the affected areas, and U.S. media have filled with photos of infected Africans sprawled near death on the streets with no one to help.
Obama referenced those images and stories as “absolutely gut-wrenching” scenes that spurred action.
A World Health Organization official said Tuesday in Geneva that reported cases have risen to nearly 5,000, with nearly 2,500 deaths and warned that West Africa is on the brink of a “humanitarian catastrophe.”
“Quite frankly, ladies and gentlemen, this health crisis we’re facing is unparalleled in modern times,” Assistant Director General Bruce Aylward told a press conference.
He said those numbers “can be kept in the tens of thousands, but that is going to require a much faster escalation of the response if we are to beat the escalation of the virus.”
The WHO has so far failed, many critics have charged, to mount a comprehensive, coordinated and timely response to the growing emergency.
The organization acknowledges that the epidemic is out of control and issued a plea for more volunteers.
“Today, Liberia has not one single bed available for the treatment of an Ebola patient anywhere in the entire country,” said Director-General Margaret Chan, during an announcement last week that Cuba will send 165 doctors, nurses and infectious disease specialists to Sierra Leone. “Our response is running short on nearly everything, from personal protective equipment, to body bags, to mobile laboratories, to isolation wards.”
Chan said the most urgent need is the “right people. The right specialists. And specialists who are appropriately trained and know how to keep themselves safe.”
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Staff writer Richard Halicks contributed to this article.