WASHINGTON, Nov. 13, 2014 —
Against the largest and most protracted Ebola outbreak in history, the U.S. military has made a Herculean effort and helped accelerate the critical response in Liberia, Administrator Rajiv Shah of the U.S. Agency for International Development told a House panel today.
Shah joined officials from the Defense and State departments who testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on the international response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
Across the three most-affected West African countries, more than 14,000 people have been infected and more than 5,000 have died of Ebola virus disease.
A ‘Crisis of Epidemic Proportions’
“In Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone we are facing a crisis of epidemic proportions, and [President Barack Obama] has directed us to lead a whole-of-government response in West Africa that can help ensure America's security and safety from this tragic disease,” Shah said in his opening statement.
The administrator said he was proud to address the committee with members of the interagency team who have offered “extraordinarily important leadership.”
For its part, he said, the Defense Department has been responsible for “the really Herculean efforts the military has taken” in its contribution to the U.S. response.
It has been critically important, Shah added, “to have, amongst other things, the Navy labs in place, greatly accelerating the time it takes to do diagnostics, from seven or eight days down to 5 or 6 hours.”
Of the nine mobile labs in and near Monrovia, seven are DoD labs, one is a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-National Institutes of Health lab, and the other is a European Union-donated lab. All make it possible to determine quickly whether someone has Ebola or another infectious disease so they may be prevented from infecting others.
Also this week, a 22-member team from the expeditionary 1st Area Medical Laboratory, part of the Army’s 20th Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosives Command, arrived in Monrovia to set up mobile diagnostic labs in four locations outside the capital.
During a press conference yesterday at the Pentagon, Army Maj. Gen. Gary J. Volesky, Operation United Assistance Joint Force commander, called the increase in mobile diagnostic labs in and around Monrovia a “game-changer.”
During his testimony today, Shah said the State Department, as part of the whole-of-government team, has helped encourage more than $800 million in commitments from other countries so the United States is not pursuing the Ebola response alone.
All team members, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, operate “in an absolutely integrated manner,” he said, “and in fact the deputy director of our Disaster Assistance Response Team, [or DART team,] which is leading the effort on the ground, is a member of the Centers for Disease Control.”
Shah said Obama is requesting $6.18 billion in emergency funding to enhance U.S. efforts to urgently address the crisis now and for the coming year.
‘Resources Are Essential’ in Ebola Fight
“These resources are essential to rapidly scaling up activities to control the outbreak at its source, to support recovery in West Africa in health, agriculture, food and other sectors of work to prevent civil unrest and governance collapse,” he said.
The funds also will help strengthen global health security in the region, the administrator added, “so, as we just saw yesterday, cases appearing in Mali don't get beyond that area and are effectively controlled.”
On a recent trip to the three Ebola-stricken West African nations, Shah said he had a chance to meet first responders and see “the extraordinary results of American investment and effort.”
Dignified, Safe Burials Help Prevent Ebola Spread
One example involved 65 burial teams that have tackled the crisis at its most aggressive point of transmission. He said 70 percent of all cases are transmitted through bodies and the handling of bodies.
“Today,” he said, “more than 95 percent of dead bodies are disposed of in a dignified manner but in a safe manner with the proper burial team handling the disposal. That's just one example but it has clearly helped bring down the number of new cases, so that today we believe the transmission rate has been greatly reduced in Liberia.”
In Sierra Leone, Shah visited with trainers who are training hundreds of healthcare workers, mostly African and mostly local, in the effective use of protective equipment so they can be on the front lines of the response.
“Together with the World Health Organization and other countries we will train thousands of local health care workers who are on the front line … and who will be the legacy we leave behind … for global health efforts throughout the region,” the administrator said.
Reaching Out to Rural Communities
In Guinea, which has the fewest number of Ebola cases at between 500 and 600, the whole-of-government USAID-led team is working aggressively to scale up efforts in hard-to-reach forest regions and rural communities.
As the lead for the U.S. response in West Africa, USAID is also finding new ways to respond to the largest outbreak in history.
“We've had to invest in real innovation and science,” Shah said. “In the next two days we will be reviewing proposals for new protective suits that can help reduce the infection risk when health workers take them off and put them on because the current protective equipment is not designed for tropical disease control.”
USAID is also sending a real-time data-collection team that has received more than 8,500 ruggedized Android hand-held devices to collect better real-time data about where cases are, allowing a more rapid response.
USAID is also using its efforts in agriculture, especially food production, Shah said, to make sure the agriculture-based backbone of the rural economy in all three countries gets up and running again as soon as possible.
Shah said these efforts, taken together and led on the ground by DART Team Leader Bill Berger in Monrovia, are “making a tremendous difference in changing the path of this epidemic.”
He added, “If we continue to provide support at the level the president is requesting, we believe we can overcome this crisis by tackling it at its source.”
(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter: @PellerinDoDNews)