NAPLES, Italy — A team of 15 Seabees from Djibouti has deployed to Liberia as part of the U.S. military effort to stem the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
The engineering team from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 133 at Camp Lemonnier will build one of 17 hospitals in Liberia that are central to military efforts, known as Operation United Assistance. The team will conduct site surveys, construct the $22 million hospital and stock it with supplies, according to military officials and a Facebook post by the task force that normally commands the team in Djibouti.
Members left Djibouti on Friday for the Navy base in Rota, Spain, en route to the Liberian capital of Monrovia. Their deployment follows the arrival last Wednesday of U.S. Army Africa commander Maj. Gen. Darryl Williams and a dozen military planners. Williams is leading the joint operation, which is slated to last six months but may be extended as needed, Pentagon officials have said. Roughly 3,000 U.S. troops are expected to deploy to the country in the coming weeks. A Pentagon spokesman told reporters on Monday that 60 military personnel are already in the country, including Seabees, according to media reports.
Each of the 17 treatment centers will have a capacity of 100 beds. The mission aims to train local health care workers to treat patients and to provide command and control for U.S. and international efforts to halt the spread of the virus.
U.S. officials have said that troops will not directly treat patients and that all who deploy will have protective gear to prevent infection.
The outbreak of the Ebola virus is the largest in history. More than 2,800 people have died in more than 5,800 known cases since the first were detected in Guinea in March, according to the World Health Organization. The toll has been heaviest in Liberia, where more than 1,500 people have died. Neighboring Guinea and Sierra Leone are also at the center of the outbreak, and isolated cases have spread to nearby countries like Nigeria and Senegal.
The outbreak has overwhelmed health care systems in the region, leading some countries to quarantine patients in their homes and spurring social unrest and violence. Experts say the number of actual cases is likely more than twice as high as recorded figures.
The rapid pace of infection presents a special challenge for the military, which is expected to need weeks, if not months, to get its people and command structure established. Experts have warned that Ebola infection rates will continue their exponential climb unless stepped-up measures are quickly adopted in the hardest-hit countries. A report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday projected 1.4 million Ebola cases by January if infections continue at their current pace, according to media reports. It predicted the disease could be “almost ended” by January if patient treatment rates rise significantly and the dead are properly buried.