Despite President Obama’s call for increased involvement of the U.S. military in the fight against the rapidly escalating Ebola epidemic in West Africa, the United States is hamstrung by a lack of military medical personnel with expertise dealing with the deadly virus, a top official in charge of coordinating the U.S. response said Tuesday.
“There isn’t an existing cadre of people who have experience in treating this epidemic other than” the aid group Doctors Without Borders, said Nancy Lindborg of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
The Pentagon announced Monday that it would set up a 25-bed field hospital in Liberia to help provide medical care for health workers responding to the epidemic, prompting criticism from international aid groups and global health advocates who said the action was paltry compared with the need in the hardest-hit countries — Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Lindborg said Tuesday that the hospital is intended to provide health care for foreign workers, not Liberians. The goal of the hospital is to “provide assurance that there will be quality health care available for health workers” who have or might volunteer to go to any of the affected countries, she said.
The World Health Organization has said the outbreak is “increasing exponentially” in Liberia. In Montserrado County alone — where the capital, Monrovia, is located — there is a need for 1,000 treatment beds; only 240 exist.
The Defense Department has provided some equipment, supplies and staff in the region since the outbreak began months ago. But the expectation was that Obama’s remarks on Sunday would produce more substantive action and that the U.S. military, with its enormous logistical capacity, extensive air operations and highly trained medical corps, could address gaps in the response quickly.
But the United States does not have a workforce trained in the special protocols for Ebola, Lindborg said. WHO is currently training 500 new workers in Liberia, and the U.S. government is supporting that effort, she said.
“I would like to know, do they think the response to date by the U.S. government will make any difference in the course of events in the current epidemic?” said Joanne Liu, international president of Doctors Without Borders, which has been the aid group working most actively since the outbreak began months ago.
During the same news briefing Tuesday, a top Pentagon official declined to provide specifics about other military assets that could be deployed.
“We’re continuing to evaluate where to best support the overall effort,” said Michael Lumpkin, assistant secretary of defense for special operations/low-intensity conflicts.
The Pentagon is providing two fully-equipped diagnostic labs to Liberia to help with testing and the tracing of infected patients, he said.
A senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because planning is still underway suggested that additional U.S. assistance is likely. “We’re considering options and, to be sure, our response will be commensurate with how the president views this outbreak: as a national security priority,” the official said.
USAID said it is sending 1,000 treatment beds for direct patient care and $10 million to transport 100 health-care workers from member countries of the African Union to the affected region, bringing the total amount spent by the United States to more than $100 million since the outbreak began.
The death toll has climbed to at least 2,296 in West Africa, WHO announced Tuesday. The new figure, current through Saturday, shows a staggering spike of nearly 200 new deaths recorded in one day. West Africa has 4,293 total cases of confirmed, probable and suspected Ebola infections, a number that could rise as high as 20,000, WHO has warned.
More than half of the epidemic’s deaths (1,224) and nearly half of all cases (2,046) have been in Liberia. The country has become so overwhelmed that only 31 percent of Ebola cases in Liberia have been lab-confirmed through blood tests, WHO said. Another 47 percent of Liberia’s cases have been deemed “probable,” which means the have been evaluated by a clinician, according to WHO. Probable cases also include people who had suspected cases and died and had a link to someone with a confirmed case.
Several factors account for why so many Liberian cases aren’t confirmed by labs, WHO spokesman Daniel Epstein said Tuesday. Among them are the sheer volume of cases in that country, poor infrastructure and the limited number of Ebola labs and staff throughout West Africa.
Elahe Izadi contributed to this report.