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U.S. to Complete Ebola Treatment Units in Liberia
From the Wall Street Journal of Mon, 22 Dec 2014 16:57:30 EST

WASHINGTON—The U.S. will complete the last of its Ebola treatment units in Liberia by the end of December, setting the stage for the military to decide next month whether to send some service members home or send them to another West African country, the top U.S. commander in Liberia said Monday.

The U.S. will decide by mid-January whether to redeploy troops to Sierra Leone or Guinea or simply further shrink the size of the military mission in Liberia, Maj. Gen. Gary Volesky, the commander of the military’s Ebola task force, said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.

The military task force has been involved in the building of 14 treatment units, in addition to the treatment unit completed before the 101st Airborne Division arrived. Four of the units were built by Army and Liberian engineers. Contractors hired by the Army and U.S. Agency for International Development built 10 others with the assistance of the military task force, officials said.

On Monday, U.S. and Liberian forces finished work on a treatment unit in Gbediah, Liberia, and are set to transfer the facility to an American-based contractor later this week, military officials said.

In Liberia, the number of new confirmed Ebola cases has shrunk to just three a day from 52 at the height of the epidemic, Gen. Volesky said. As a result, the U.S. has scaled back some of its efforts, cutting the number of military service members it planned to deploy and reducing the size of the Ebola treatment units it planned to build to 50 beds from 100.

Also on Monday, the United Nations World Health Organization said 19,340 confirmed, suspected or probable cases of Ebola had been reported in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone since the outbreak began in the summer, and 7,518 people have died of the disease in those countries.

Gen. Volesky, who is also the 101st Airborne Division commander, said the U.S. effort now is focused not just on fighting the current outbreak but also making sure Liberia would be ready to combat a future Ebola outbreak as well.

“If the progress in Liberia continues the direction it is going in and we don’t get told to do something outside Liberia, I expect we would start to redeploy some forces,” Gen. Volesky said in an interview from his headquarters in Liberia. “If they tell us to do something else, we will do that.”

U.S. Africa Command, officials said, will make the decision by mid-January whether to move some of the 2,400 service member in Liberia to Sierra Leone or Guinea, which haven't had the same success as Liberia in getting the Ebola outbreak under control.

Stephen Morrison, director of Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Global Health Policy Center, cautioned against being too optimistic about progress in Liberia but said as conditions worsen in Sierra Leone, where the British are responsible for administering the international response, the U.S. military could get drawn in there.

“Is the U.S. military going to be inevitably pulled into that, given the regional nature of this crisis? My hunch is the U.S. military would be extremely reluctant to take that step and doesn’t want to be pulled in that direction,” he said.

Gen. Volesky said the U.S. government has sent officials to Sierra Leone to share what approaches were working in Liberia. He said the U.S. believes the course of the outbreak in Sierra Leone is about six weeks behind Liberia.

The U.S. forces in Liberia are under orders not to build treatment units or other infrastructure that cannot be maintained by the Liberian government, to avoid mistakes made in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gen. Volesky said.

The goal, he said, was to build up the health care capacity of Liberia in a way that puts the Liberian government on a more solid footing to combat the next Ebola outbreak on its own.

“If Ebola comes back in two years, the government of Liberia has the capacity to deal with it without calling the DoD to help,” Gen. Volesky said.

Gen. Volesky said none of his troops have come into contact with someone infected with Ebola and said Malaria remains a far bigger threat to the troops than Ebola. Still, he said all service members have their temperature checked twice a day. If someone has a temperature over 100.4 they are isolated.

A couple cases of flu and stomach ailments have allowed the task force to practice their isolation procedures, he said.

Write to Julian E. Barnes at julian.barnes@wsj.com and Felicia Schwartz at Felicia.Schwartz@wsj.com



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