Groups Say Slow US Military Response to Ebola Has Cost Lives

Health workers, attend to patients that contracted the Ebola virus, at a clinic in Monrovia, Liberia, Monday, Sept. 8, 2014 (AP Photo/Abbas Dulleh)

The pace of the U.S. military and public health response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa has drawn harsh criticism from aid groups on the front lines.

The efforts of the U.S. and the international community were "moving with the speed of a turtle," said Joanne Chiu, executive director of the Doctors Without Borders relief group, at the United Nations last week.

Chiu spoke shortly after President Obama said that the U.S. was taking the lead in the global response to the epidemic, while himself acknowledging that the response thus far has been slow.

Obama noted that he had pledged $750 million to send 3,000 troops to West Africa along with medical supplies and personnel from the Agency for International Development and the Centers for Disease Control to combat the virus that has hit hardest in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

"But I want us to be clear," Obama said. "We are not moving fast enough. We are not doing enough. There is still a significant gap between where we are and where we need to be."

Chiu said the aid pledges were welcome but "the reality on the ground today is this -- the promised surge has not yet delivered."

"The sick are desperate, their families and caregivers are angry, and aid workers are exhausted," Chiu said.

"Fear and panic have set in, as infection rates double every three weeks," Chiu said. "Mounting numbers are dying of other diseases, like malaria, because health systems have collapsed."

The Pentagon said Monday that an additional 30 military personnel had arrived in the Liberian capital of Monrovia, bringing the total number of troops on the ground there to about 150 since Obama announced the military commitment two weeks ago.

The troops led by Army Maj. Gen. Darryl Williams, head of U.S. Army Africa, include 15 Navy Seabees who came from the U.S. Africa Command base and 67 from U.S. Army Africa, said Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman.

The first task will be to set up a 25-bed facility in Liberia that was expected to be running by mid-October for the treatment of health care workers believed to have contracted Ebola, Pentagon spokesmen said. None of the U.S. military personnel in West Africa will have direct contact with Ebola patients, the Pentagon said.

Most of the 3,000 troops were expected to work out of an intermediate staging base in Senegal that was to serve as an "air bridge" to funnel supplies and health care workers into the region. Warren said that there were no troops yet in Senegal.

The Defense Department also has two separate requests before Congress of $500 million each to reprogram money from the fund for Overseas Contingency Operations to support Operation United Assistance in West Africa.

As the U.S. military gears up for the operation, the number of Ebola cases has increased dramatically. The World Health Organization said on Sept. 23 that 6,574 cases of Ebola had been reported in West Africa, and there had been 3,091 deaths recorded. The numbers were nearly twice those reported in August.

The CDC warned last week that in the worst case scenario, if international aid efforts falter, the number of Ebola cases in Liberia and Sierra Leone could soar to 1.4 million by mid-January.

Commenting on the CDC report last week, U.S. Ambassador to Liberia Deborah Malac said "We are absolutely determined that we will get nowhere near that number. We are going to figure out a way to break the back of that curve."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com.

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