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Pentagon Scaling Back Military Effort to Contain Ebola

U.S. personnel construct the Monrovia Medical Unit site in Monrovia, Liberia. The MMU is being constructed in the event any medical workers in the area catch Ebola while assisting in Operation United Assistance. Craig Philbrick/Army
U.S. personnel construct the Monrovia Medical Unit site in Monrovia, Liberia. The MMU is being constructed in the event any medical workers in the area catch Ebola while assisting in Operation United Assistance. Craig Philbrick/Army

The U.S. military was scaling back its efforts against Ebola in Liberia amid encouraging signs of progress against the epidemic, Army Gen. David Rodriguez said Wednesday.

The military initially planned to construct 17 treatment centers of 100 beds each in Liberia, but will now set up 10 centers for virus victims. The first three centers will have 100 beds, but the remaining seven will have 50 beds, Rodriguez, head of U.S. Africa Command, said at a Pentagon briefing.

Rodriguez also said the military was looking at possibly easing the 30-day quarantine period for troops returning from West Africa. However, he stressed that no decisions had been made.

The White House and the Pentagon had planned for about 4,000 troops to be sent to Liberia and to a staging base in Senegal. Army Maj. Gen. Gary Volesky, commander of the 101st Airborne Division and the troops deployed to West Africa, later lowered that estimate to about 3,000 and said the number would be reached in mid-December.

Rodriguez said about 2,900 troops were on the ground now and the troop strength would not be increased. The troops had been expected to stay in Liberia for nine months to one year, but Rodriguez said it was possible that many would be withdrawn by summer.

"We have made significant progress" in Liberia against the virus, Rodriguez said, "But we cannot afford to be complacent."

Rodriguez attributed the progress to improved burial procedures, more rapid diagnosis and outreach with the community on safe practices.

Although reports of new Ebola cases were down in Liberia, the virus was still spreading in neighboring Sierra Leone, where Britain has taken the lead in the international effort to contain the epidemic, Rodriguez said.

There were no immediate plans to expand the U.S. military effort into Sierra Leone, but "that depends on the situation and what is asked of us to do outside of Liberia," Rodriguez said.

The World Health Organization reported Tuesday that more than 17,000 cases of Ebola have been reported in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea -- the hardest hit countries -- and more than 6,000 have died of the virus.

At the National Institutes of Health on Tuesday, President Obama said that "our strategy is beginning to show results" in the fight against Ebola. "We're beginning to see some progress."

Obama said infection rates in Liberia were declining and he also noted that the international community has pledged more than $2 billion to combating Ebola.

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

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