President Obama said Tuesday that “the world has a responsibility to act” to save the lives of West Africans threatened by a growing Ebola epidemic, and that the United States will devote significant new resources to curbing the spread of the disease.
Speaking to reporters after meeting at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Atlanta with senior officials from the CDC and several other federal agencies involved in the response effort, the president made an impassioned call for other governments to intensify their efforts.
“The reality is, this epidemic is going to get worse before it gets better. But right now the world still has an opportunity to save countless lives,” he said, recounting how some affected families have been forced to wait outside hospitals because they could not get treated. “And these men and women and children are just sitting, waiting to die, right now. And it doesn’t have to be this way.”
As part of a massive ramp-up of American military involvement, the U.S. Africa Command is sending Maj. Gen. Darryl A. Williams to Monrovia, Liberia, to oversee and coordinate federal agencies’ response to the crisis. The Pentagon will establish a separate regional staging base in Senegal, which has not been seriously affected by the crisis, and will set up 17 treatment centers as well as a site in the region to train up to 500 health-care workers a week.
The president said the armed forces “are going to bring their expertise in command and control, in logistics, in engineering” to help do tasks ranging from bringing in aid workers and medical equipment to distributing supplies and information kits to families in high-risk areas so they can take the appropriate precautions. “Our armed services is better at that than any organization on Earth.”
While some African leaders and lawmakers had criticized Obama for not doing enough to curb the deadly virus, Obama clearly has elevated the issue over the past week. In Atlanta he not only met with federal officials, but with doctors and nurses from Emory University Hospital who treated two Americans who had been infected with the virus while doing humanitarian work in West Africa. A third patient arrived last week.
Earlier in the day, the president met in the Oval Office with Kent Brantly, an American doctor who contracted Ebola when he was treating patients in Liberia for the humanitarian group Samaritan’s Purse, along with Brantly’s wife, Amber. Brantly is in Washington to testify before Congress.
Global health experts and many lawmakers praised the administration for taking forceful action but cautioned that critical questions remain, given the complexity and magnitude of the epidemic.
On Tuesday, the World Health Organization warned that the international community must provide at least $1 billion in additional assistance to keep the number of total infections “within the tens of thousands.” Its assistant director general, Bruce Aylward, said in a news conference that the toll from the disease in five countries has doubled in the past three weeks; as of Sept. 13, at least 4,985 people have been infected, and at least 2,461 of them have died.
Meanwhile, the board of the World Bank approved a $105 million emergency grant Tuesday to the three countries most affected by the epidemic. Liberia will receive nearly $52 million. Sierra Leone will receive $28 million and Guinea $25 million. The money, part of a $230 million World Bank package to the countries, will go toward essential supplies and drugs, protective equipment, hazard pay and death benefits for Ebola health workers and volunteers, and contact tracing, among other things.
On Capitol Hill, both Republicans and Democrats expressed support for the president’s plan and his earlier request for an additional $88 million in funding, although some lawmakers said they are worried that the administration’s response may still not be enough. On Tuesday night, the administration notified lawmakers that the Pentagon will redirect $500 million in unobligated funds to support the new mission. Taken on top of last week’s Defense Department request to reprogram $500 million to Iraq and the Ebola outbreak, the Pentagon may spend up to $1 billion combating the epidemic.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) expressed support for the effort. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said he was “frankly a bit surprised that the administration hasn’t acted more quickly to address what is a serious threat not just to Africans, but to others around the world.”
Public health officials said some aspects of the administration’s strategy could undermine its effectiveness.
The new treatment centers that the Pentagon is establishing will be run by health-care workers from various aid groups and nonprofits rather than by U.S. government personnel. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said it is more effective to have one organization in charge. Since stopping transmission is the key to controlling the epidemic, every protocol — from washing hands to suiting up in personal protective gear — must be done perfectly.
Osterholm noted that Doctors Without Borders, the group that has been battling the outbreak since late last year, operates all aspects of its treatment centers.
“We need to find a way to make this one seamless activity, which is why MSF is so successful,” he said, using the French initials for the group.
The bulk of the U.S. response is targeted at Liberia, where cases are increasing sharply, but the same kind of effort is needed for Sierra Leone and Guinea, Osterholm said, noting that cases in Sierra Leone are beginning to rise quickly.
“Otherwise, you’re only fixing one of three screen doors on the submarine,” he said.
One of the biggest hurdles remains the most basic: reaching residents in the affected communities in the region and persuading them that Ebola is real and lethal and that they must abandon certain practices, such as handling and washing the bodies of dead relatives, which often transmits the virus.
Many people are too poor to afford the basic supplies to cope with the epidemic, although various groups are trying to provide residents with buckets, gloves, chlorine and other essentials. Some people wrap their hands in plastic bags when cleaning up vomit or excrement from infected relatives, which provides too little protection from the virus, said Sarah Crowe, UNICEF’s chief of crisis communications, who is in Monrovia.
She said some people will ask, “ ‘How much chlorine do we put on vomit?’ And we don’t know the answer,” because so much about the epidemic is unprecedented.
Lenny Bernstein in Monrovia, Liberia, contributed to this report.