Health workers, center rear, screen people for the deadly Ebola virus before entering the Kenema Government Hospital. AP photo
BY MAGGIE FOX, NBC News
(NBC News) - President Barack Obama will announce a major military-led surge in U.S. aid to fight the "unparallelled" Ebola epidemic in West Africa later Tuesday, with as many as 3,000 troops to help organize, train new health care workers and build treatment clinics.
The Defense Department will divert $500 million for the effort, which will include building 17 treatment centers with 100 beds apiece in Liberia, dedicating 10,000 sets of personal protective equipment and distributing supplies such as disinfectant and hand sanitizer to help 400,000 families protect themselves and care for sick family members.
The World Health Organization, which has been pleading for help for months, says the epidemic is "unparalled in modern times." The official death toll has climbed to 2,500 with at least 5,000 infected. And now it will take $1 billion to control it, the United Nations said.
"The amount for which we requested was about $100 million a month ago and now it is $1 billion, so our ask has gone up 10 times in a month," Dr. David Nabarro, senior U.N. coordinator for Ebola, told reporters in Geneva. "Because of the way the outbreak is advancing, the level of surge we need to do is unprecedented. It is massive," he said.
"The Ebola epidemic in West Africa and the humanitarian crisis there is a top national security priority for the United States," the White House said in a statement. Obama will announce details when he visits the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Senior administration officials, who asked not to be identified because they don't want to upstage the president, said they believe the surge will start to turn the epidemic around. WHO, local leaders and aid groups in West Africa have all said the epidemic is raging out of control, and top WHO officials visited Washington earlier this month to beg for more help.
So does Medecine Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders)
"Today, in Monrovia, sick people are banging on the doors of MSF Ebola care centers, because they do not want to infect their families and they are desperate for a safe place in which to be isolated," the group's international president, Dr. Joanne Liu,said at a United Nations special briefing on Ebola Tuesday.
"Tragically, our teams must turn them away. We simply do not have enough capacity for them. Highly infectious people are forced to return home, only to infect others and continue the spread of this deadly virus. All for a lack of international response," Liu added.
WHO says as many as 20,000 people could be infected in the coming months. One of the senior administration officials said the number could spike to hundreds of thousands of people.
The ramp-up should create a "backbone" that will give other countries the confidence to send in supplies and money to help, the officials said. A U.S. general will coordinate command and control efforts, but the officials said everything will be synced with international groups such as WHO and with local governments. They declined to say it amounted to a U.S. takeover of the aid effort.
The U.S. Africa Command will train as many as 500 new health care workers a week for six months and longer if needed. WHO and aid groups such as Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF, or Doctors Without Borders) have said medical staff are by far the greatest need.
"U.S. Africa Command will establish a regional intermediate staging base to facilitate and expedite the transportation of equipment, supplies and personnel," the White House said in a statement.
"Just as the outbreak has worsened, our response will be commensurate with the challenge."
Some groups questioned whether even this surge would be enough. "Despite new U.S. goverment resources for Ebola, I expect there will still a huge shortage across the region. Will other governments follow suit?" Michael Stulman, a spokesman for Catholic Relief Services, asked via Twitter. Stulman also asked whether the U.S. push did enough for Sierra Leone and Guinea.
"As of today, MSF has sent more than 420 tonnes of supplies to the affected countries. We have 2,000 staff on the ground. We manage more than 530 beds in five different Ebola care centres. Yet we are overwhelmed. We are honestly at a loss as to how a single, private NGO (non-government organization) is providing the bulk of isolation units and beds," Liu said.
Eventually, the U.S. will supply hundreds of thousands of the needed sets of personal protective equipment — which include full body suits, gloves, boots, goggles and masks to protect health care workers from the virus. Families will get smaller kits.
"In partnership with the United Nations Children Fund, the Paul Allen Family Foundation, and other key partners, we will immediately target the 400,000 most vulnerable households in Liberia," the White House said.
"As part of this effort, this week, USAID will airlift 50,000 home health care kits from Denmark to Liberia to be hand-delivered to distant communities by trained youth volunteers."