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Rodriguez: Troops in Liberia Will Be Protected From Ebola

By Cheryl Pellerin DoD News, Defense Media Activity

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WASHINGTON, Oct. 4, 2014 — Soldiers deployed to Liberia to help with the Ebola outbreak there will receive the best equipment and training beforehand, be monitored on the ground and be screened before they go home, the commander of U.S. Africa Command said at the White House yesterday.

Army Gen. David M. Rodriguez joined members of the Obama administration and medical experts in a news briefing held to reassure the American public after a traveler from West Africa was the first person to be diagnosed with Ebola in the United States.

At the briefing, Rodriguez joined Lisa Monaco, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah, and Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health.

The Defense Department could deploy up to 4,000 service members to Liberia as part of Operation United Assistance, Pentagon Press Secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon yesterday.

There are 205 U.S. service members now in Liberia, and another 26 in neighboring Senegal, Kirby added.

America’s sons and daughters

“As we deploy America's sons and daughters to support the comprehensive U.S. government effort led by the U.S. Agency for International Development, we'll do everything in our power to address and mitigate any potential risk to our service members and civilian employees and their families,” Rodriguez said in his remarks.

On Sept. 16 President Barack Obama directed Africom to set up a Joint Force Command Headquarters in the Liberian capital of Monrovia to support U.S. military activities and help coordinate expanded U.S. and international relief efforts to fight the Ebola virus disease outbreak in West Africa.

According to the World Health Organization, 7,470 probable, confirmed and suspected cases and 3,431 deaths have been reported as of Oct. 1 by the Ministries of Health of Guinea and Sierra Leone, and as of Sept. 30 by the Ministry of Health of Liberia.

Rodriguez said the troops in Monrovia are focusing on command and control to help support and coordinate USAID and international community efforts, and on training the people who man and manage the Ebola treatment units.

Operation United Assistance

Operation United Assistance troops also support engineering efforts involved in building Ebola treatment units, and work in the area of logistics, which the general called a massive effort.

“For our soldiers, prior to deployment we'll provide them the best equipment and training that we can,” Rodriguez said.

“We're assessing risk based on the service member's mission, their location, and their activities in execution of their operations,” he added. “We're implementing procedures to reduce or eliminate the risk of transmission as service members go about their daily missions, including the use of personal protective equipment, hygiene protocols and monitoring.”

Before service members are sent back home, anyone who faced an elevated risk or exposure will be identified and screened, the general said, and all necessary steps will be taken to minimize any potential transmission in accordance with international standards put in place by medical professionals.

The discipline of our leaders

“In the end,” Rodriguez said, “our equipment, training, procedures, and most of all the discipline of our leaders and our force, will help us to ensure that our team accomplishes its mission without posing a risk to our nation and our fellow citizens.”

After the White House briefing, the president spoke by phone with Rodriguez, who provided an update on the U.S. government’s response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, according to a readout of the call provided by the White House.

Obama and Rodriguez discussed the progress of the response, noting that Operation United Assistance is bringing speed and scale to the U.S. government's regional response led by USAID.

During the call, Obama underscored the pivotal role of American leadership in containing the epidemic at its source.

Impacts of the crisis

In his remarks, USAID’s Shah said the U.S. effort in West Africa includes a major effort to control the disease, specific actions to deal with secondary impacts of the crisis in several West African countries -- including making food, water and government support more available -- and efforts to build out an international coalition.

“Our response in West Africa started in the spring and accelerated dramatically over the summer,” Shah said.

“This coordinated civilian response included the largest-ever disaster assistance response team from USAID; a more than 100-person Centers for Disease Control disease-control capability deployed to Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and countries throughout the region; and efforts partnering with our Department of Defense colleagues to more than double the laboratory and diagnostic capacity in West Africa,” the administrator added.

Increase basic capacity

Since then, Shah said, teams have helped deliver more than 120,000 sets of personal protective equipment, expand Ebola treatment units, provide technical assistance for airport screening throughout the region, and increase the basic capacity of a weak health care infrastructure to deal with the disease.

Shah said the strategy is threefold:

-- To invest in a strong incident command system at national and local levels region-wide to identify cases and trace contacts;

-- To expand Ebola treatment units so that enough bed capacity exists for as many positively identified patients as possible to receive isolation and treatment; and

-- To engage an extensive community care strategy that includes 10- to 20-bed community care center units placed in rural communities in particular to help isolate patients there and support the distribution of hygiene and protective equipment kits so families can protect themselves while caring for members who are ill.

“In recent days we've been successful in scaling up the effort to identify, reach and in a safe and dignified manner deal with bodies of patients who are deceased from Ebola,” Shah said.

Safe-burial teams

“We now have more than 50 safe-burial teams with full protective equipment and careful protocols in place,” he added, “and we're noting that more than three-quarters of all bodies in Liberia of positively identified patients are now being cleared safely within the 24-hour period.”

Shah said this is critically important because local burial practices are an important existing mode of Ebola transmission.

“The scale-up of [CDC] and USAID efforts through June and August was quite significant,” the administrator added.

“But the complexity of building out Ebola treatment units and providing the logistics support in terms of protective equipment and medicines required the significant additional resources brought by the Department of Defense and announced by President Obama,” he said.


(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter @PellerinDoDNews)