(Reuters) – President Barack Obama on Tuesday called West Africa’s deadly Ebola outbreak a looming threat to global security and announced a major expansion of the U.S. role in trying to halt its spread, including deployment of 3,000 troops to the region.
“The reality is that this epidemic is going to get worse before it gets better,” Obama said at the Atlanta headquarters of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“But, right now, the world still has an opportunity to save countless lives. Right now, the world has the responsibility to act, to step up and to do more. The United States of America intends to do more,” he added.
The U.S. plan, a dramatic expansion of Washington’s initial response last week, won praise from the U.N. World Health Organization, aid workers and officials in West Africa. Experts said it was still not enough to contain the epidemic, which is rapidly spreading and has caused already-weak local public health systems to buckle under the strain of fighting it.
U.S. officials said the focus of the military deployment would be Liberia, a nation founded by freed American slaves that is the hardest hit of the countries affected by the crisis.
Obama’s plan calls for sending 3,000 troops, including engineers and medical personnel; establishing a regional command and control center in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, commanded by Major General Darryl Williams, who arrived there on Tuesday; and forming a staging area in Senegal to help distribute personnel and aid on the ground.
It also calls for building 17 treatment centers with 100 beds each; placing U.S. Public Health Service personnel in new field hospitals in Liberia; training thousands of healthcare workers for six months or longer; and creating an “air bridge” to get health workers and medical supplies into West Africa more quickly.
The worst Ebola outbreak since the disease was identified in 1976 has already killed nearly 2,500 people and is threatening to spread elsewhere in Africa.
Obama said “the world is looking to us” to take the lead against Ebola, but urged other nations also to take action because the epidemic is “spiraling out of control” and “people are literally dying in the streets.”
The White House said the troops will not be responsible for direct patient care. Amid concern about infections, Obama said the “safety of our personnel will remain a top priority.” He also said the “chances of an Ebola outbreak here in the United States are extremely low.”
Obama said that if the outbreak is not stopped now, hundreds of thousands of people may become infected, “with profound political and economic and security implications for all of us.”
“This is an epidemic that is not just a threat to regional security. It’s a potential threat to global security, if these countries break down, if their economies break down, if people panic. That has profound effects on all of us, even if we are not directly contracting the disease,” Obama added.
The WHO praised the U.S. plan for providing support to the United Nations and other international partners to help authorities in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Senegal contain the outbreak.
“This massive ramp-up of support from the United States is precisely the kind of transformational change we need to get a grip on the outbreak and begin to turn it around,” Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO’s director-general, said in a statement.
Earlier, a senior WHO official said the Ebola outbreak requires a much faster response to limit its spread to tens of thousands of cases.
“We don’t know where the numbers are going on this,” WHO Assistant Director-General Bruce Aylward told a news conference in Geneva, calling the crisis “unparalleled in modern times.”
The initial U.S. response last week had focused on providing funding and supplies, drawing criticism from aid workers for not deploying manpower as in other disasters like earthquakes.
Obama’s announcement marks his second within a week of a new mission for the U.S. military, following last week’s speech outlining a broad escalation of the campaign against the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria.
During a congressional hearing in Washington, CDC official Beth Bell said the “window of opportunity” to control Ebola’s spread is closing, while both Democratic and Republican lawmakers voiced support for funding the fight against the virus.
“We need to declare a war on Ebola,” Republican Senator Jerry Moran said.
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