VICENZA, Italy — Soldiers sent to Liberia to assist in fighting an Ebola epidemic that experts say could kill hundreds of thousands face minimal chance of contracting the deadly disease, U.S. Army Africa's commander assured concerned families Tuesday.
"We're going to take care of them. You have my word on it," Maj. Gen. Darryl Williams said, addressing deploying troops' families via video conference from the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia, the Liberian capital.
"I told the chief of staff of the Army last night ... my biggest concern is protection of the force," he said.
Some 100 family members gathered in the chapel at Caserme Ederle in Vicenza to listen to the general's remarks and ask him questions.
Williams traveled to Liberia last week to lead a joint task force that is to number 3,000 U.S. servicemembers.
The task force, announced by President Barack Obama last week, is to provide logistics and organizational capabilities and build 17 100-bed hospitals for health workers to isolate and treat Liberians infected with the highly contagious and often fatal virus. The new hospitals are not expected to be up and running for weeks or even months.
In the meantime, the Liberian government plans to move infected people — for whom there are no beds in the country's overwhelmed medical facilities — out of their homes to ad hoc centers providing basic care, in hopes of reducing contagion among family members.
Williams stressed in the town hall meeting that the troops would be at extremely low risk of getting the virus because they would not be providing direct care to Ebola patients. Ebola is transmitted via direct contact, through broken skin or mucous membranes, with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected people, and with contaminated surfaces and materials, according to the World Health Organization.
The reality, Williams said, is that malaria poses a much greater risk for the troops.
In 2003, 79 U.S. troops, mostly Marines, became infected with malaria during a peacekeeping mission in Liberia; three nearly died. In 2010, a Navy Seabee who contracted malaria on a good-will mission there died at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.
In both outbreaks of malaria — a parasitical disease spread by mosquito — investigations showed that proper preventive procedures had not been followed.
Health experts are warning of the urgency of a global response to stem the spread of the Ebola virus, which has claimed more than 2,800 lives in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, according to the WHO. A report released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday projected 1.4 million Ebola cases in Liberia and Sierra Leone by January if, in a worst-case scenario, infections continue at their current pace. The best-case scenario is that the disease could be "almost ended" by January, with optimal treatment and education on safe practices.
"We bring organization, the ability to get things done, accountability," Williams said. "It's going to take some time, but I'm confident that this country is going to kick this thing."
About 60 troops arrived in Monrovia with Williams last week. On Tuesday, a team of 15 Seabees arrived in Liberia from Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. They are to conduct site surveys before constructing one of the 17 hospitals.
More troops are to leave for Monrovia on Saturday from U.S. Army Africa. How long they'll stay, and other important questions, remain unanswered.
"We're sort of the lead-off hitter," Williams said. "We will transition this to somebody — I can't go into detail about when or who that will be," he said in response to a question about the length of the deployment.
One spouse asked whether the troops would be quarantined when they returned.
"We're working our way through that. It's too early to tell," Williams said, adding that the Pentagon, in conjunction with the CDC, would devise a policy.
People infected with Ebola develop symptoms from two to 21 days after exposure. Most people, however, show symptoms after eight or 10 days. Only people carrying Ebola who have symptoms — fever, headache, nausea, muscle weakness — are infectious, experts say.
Officials during the video conference said that no current peacekeeping troops in Liberia or some 300 U.S. Embassy staff had contracted Ebola.
"The odds of (troops) coming into contact with the disease are slim to none," said USARAF Command Sgt. Maj. Jeffery Stitzel, who accompanied Williams to Monrovia and sat beside him in the video conference.
Complicating matters is that symptoms of Ebola and malaria are similar, officials said. Malaria is not contagious and is not generally fatal, if treated in time. There is no cure for Ebola; 30 percent to 50 percent of victims recover on their own, according to the WHO.
Army medical personnel at the meeting said they and Italian officials had determined that, in the unlikely event anyone in Italy tested positive for Ebola, they'd be isolated and treated at one of the country's two specially equipped hospitals, one in Rome, one in Milan.
But when a spouse asked what would happen if a soldier showed symptoms while in Africa, officials said that wasn't yet clear.
Evacuation and treatment protocols for troops in Liberia have yet to be established, said Col. Pedro Almeida, USARAF chief of staff, who ran the meeting at the chapel.
The Seabee's death from malaria in 2010 was partly due to delayed diagnosis, treatment and evacuation, a Navy command investigation showed. As a result, U.S. Naval Forces Africa had ordered its flight surgeon's office to devise detailed evacuation plans with each deploying unit.
"This is a critical question: We know that. This is the No. 1 question we're working," Almeida said.
Williams and Stitzel said Liberians were relieved that the U.S. was stepping in and that the mission was a "noble" one.
"It is a dangerous environment," Williams said. "We've all been in dangerous environments before."