In a whole-of-government approach and with international partners, the United States is significantly upping its response to the West African Ebola epidemic to save lives now and halt future outbreaks, President Barack Obama said today during a visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
The president received updates from CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden and his team on the Ebola outbreak and efforts to help mobilize the international community to fight the deadly viral disease.
“Faced with this outbreak, the world is looking to us, the United States, and it's a responsibility that we embrace,” Obama said, after meeting with scientists who work at the center, including some who recently returned from the epidemic’s front lines.
Mobilizing to confront Ebola
“We're prepared to take leadership on this,” the president said of agencies such as the Defense Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, “to provide the kinds of capabilities that only America has, and to mobilize the world in ways that only America can do. That's what we're doing as we speak.”
Obama said that two months ago he directed his team to make the Ebola outbreak a national security priority, and today at CDC he was joined by administration leaders, including his national security team.
“We're working this across our entire government,” the president said, “and we've devoted significant resources in support of our strategy with four goals in mind.”
The goals, he said, are:
-- To control the outbreak;
-- To address the ripple effects on local economies and communities to prevent massive humanitarian disasters;
-- To coordinate a broader global response; and
-- To urgently build up public health systems in countries with few resources.
Obama said Frieden and others at CDC had recently returned from the region, where the hardest-hit countries are Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
“The scenes that they describe are just horrific,” Obama said. “More than 2,400 men, women and children are known to have died -- and we strongly suspect that the actual death toll is higher than that. Hospitals, clinics and the few treatment centers that do exist have been completely overwhelmed.”
Already weakened public health systems are near collapse in these countries and patients are being turned away. People are literally dying in the streets, the president said.
Epidemic is getting worse
“Now here's the hard truth: In West Africa, Ebola is an epidemic of the likes that we have not seen before,” he added. “It's spiraling out of control. It is getting worse. It's spreading faster and exponentially. Today, thousands of people in West Africa are infected. That number could rapidly grow to tens of thousands.”
If the outbreak is not stopped now, Obama said, the world could see hundreds of thousands of people infected in the region, with profound political and economic and security implications for everyone.
Such an epidemic, he said, is not just a threat to regional security -- it's a potential threat to global security if the affected countries break down -- if their economies break down and if their people panic. That situation would have profound effects on people everywhere, he said, even those who don’t contract the disease.
Military command center
As the president detailed the major increase in the U.S. Ebola response, he said that at the request of the Liberian government, the United States would establish a military command center in Monrovia, Liberia, to support civilian efforts across the region. The effort will involve an estimated 3,000 U.S. forces, according to a White House fact sheet.
Obama said the response would be similar to that of the U.S. humanitarian response to the 2010 magnitude 7.0 earthquake in Haiti, adding that Maj. Gen. Darryl A. Williams, commander of U.S. Army Africa, the Army component of U.S. Africa Command, will command the center and Operation United Assistance.
“He arrived today and is now on the ground in Liberia,” Obama said. “Our forces are going to bring their expertise in command and control, logistics and engineering, and our armed services are better at that than any organization on earth.”
The president said the team on the ground would create an air bridge to speed health workers and medical supplies into West Africa, and establish a staging area in Senegal to more quickly get personnel and aid on the ground.
“We are going to create a new training site to train thousands of health workers so they can effectively and safely care for more patients,” he said.
An international effort
Personnel from the U.S. Public Health Service will deploy to the new field hospitals being set up in Liberia, and USAID will join with international partners and local communities in a community care campaign to distribute supplies and information kits to hundreds of thousands of families so they can better protect themselves, the president added.
Service members also will build more treatment units, including new isolation spaces and more than 1,000 beds.
“In all our efforts, the safety of our personnel will remain a top priority,” Obama said. “Meanwhile our scientists continue their urgent research in the hope of finding new treatments and perhaps vaccines.”
The president said that today he would call on Congress to approve requested funding so people on the ground could carry on with all the critical efforts.
The United States now has in the affected countries more than 100 specialists from multiple U.S. departments and agencies, including the departments of State, Health and Human Services, CDC, USAID and DoD.
Ebola demands a global response
Ebola is a global threat and demands a truly global response, the president said.
The United States is working intensely on the effort with the United Nations, including the World Health Organization, and the governments of affected countries and other partners, including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Norway, the African Union and the European Union.
“This week the United States will chair an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council. Next week, I'll join U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to continue mobilizing the international community around this effort,” Obama said.
More nations will come together to strengthen global health security to better prevent, detect and respond to future outbreaks before they become epidemics, he said.
The effort was announced several months ago at the G-7 meeting before the Ebola outbreak, the president said.
“We anticipated the fact that in many of these countries with weak public health systems, if we don't have more effective surveillance, more effective facilities on the ground and are not helping poor countries in developing their ability to catch these things quickly, that there was at least the potential of seeing these kinds of outbreaks,” he said.
“We now see that our predictions were correct,” Obama added. “It gives more urgency to this effort -- a Global Health Initiative -- that we have been pushing internationally.”
An opportunity to save lives
The Ebola epidemic will get worse before it gets better, the president said.
“But right now, the world still has an opportunity to save countless lives,” he said. “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,” Obama continued. “We are going to keep leading in this effort. We're going to do our part and we're going to continue to make sure that the world understands the need for them to step alongside us as well.”
(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter: @PellerinDoDNews)