By Brenda Goodman, MA
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD
Sept. 16, 2014 -- President Barack Obama announced on Tuesday a new package of measures to dramatically scale up the U.S. response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa.
He spoke from a podium at the CDC in Atlanta and addressed leaders from that agency as well as doctors and nurses from Emory University, who have recently treated Americans infected with the virus.
"Faced with this outbreak, the world is looking to us, and it's a responsibility that we embrace," said Obama, announcing the measures, which will include new involvement by the military.
Responding to a plea for help from the Liberian government, the Department of Defense will send up to 3,000 personnel to Liberia in the coming weeks in an effort to boost the international response to the outbreak, which has claimed thousands of lives and shows no signs of slowing.
The mission, which will be called "Operation United Assistance," will be based in the Liberian capital of Monrovia, with a staging area in Senegal, the president said.
The military will set up a joint-force command center that will serve to stabilize the region and hopefully encourage more involvement by other countries. "Our Department of Defense is better at that than any organization on Earth," Obama said.
The military also plans to send engineers to build another 17 units to treat people with Ebola. Each unit will have 100 beds, greatly increasing the space that is available to isolate patients in the region.
Obama said personnel from the U.S. Public Health Service will deploy to the new hospitals that are being set up.
"The safety of our personnel will remain a top priority," he said.
The military will also begin courses to train as many as 500 new health care workers each week. The training will be done by doctors and nurses in the military, officials said.
Costs of the operation will be covered by a $500 million "reprogramming" of funds within the Department of Defense budget. The president urged Congress to approve an additional $88 million that he's also requested for the new effort. The infusion of new money is on top of $175 million already committed to the fight, Obama administration officials said.
Obama said that without the increase in both money and resources, thousands of cases could quickly turn to tens of thousands.
"And if the outbreak is not stopped now, we could be looking at hundreds of thousands of people infected, with profound political and economic and security implications for all of us," he said.
"So 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," he said.
The new strategy targets the spread of the infection on several fronts, administration officials said.
Many sick patients in West Africa have chosen to stay home rather than report to understaffed hospital wards. Those people, who are often cared for by family members, are believed to be a big factor in the continuing spread of the disease.
To support families caring for loved ones with Ebola, health workers will distribute 400,000 infection-control kits to homes in the hardest hit areas. These kits will contain disinfectants and medications to help ease symptoms, officials said. They'll also have information about how the disease is spread and ways that families can more easily contact ambulance services to get their loved ones to hospitals for care.
U.S. workers are also training burial teams and will distribute thousands of additional personal-protective equipment suits to help protect people who are working to stem the outbreak.
Aside from announcing the new efforts, the president also received a "highly technical" briefing on the outbreak from health workers and CDC officials who had recently returned from the field.
He also asked Emory doctors how the lessons they learned treating Ebola patients here might translate to West Africa, according to Jay Varkey, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Emory who was in the briefing.
Varkey said doctors told Obama it would be helpful to be able to use basic blood tests to check levels of electrolytes like potassium and sodium, which are often out of whack in people with Ebola.
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