The United States and Britain are sending troops and equipment to West Africa to help curb the spread of Ebola, officials said Monday, as the World Health Organization warned that the outbreak is outstripping the capacity to respond in one of the worst-hit countries.
The military forces will build treatment facilities in Liberia and Sierra Leone to help care for victims of the virus, which has killed more than 2,000 people since it was detected in March.
Thousands more could become infected before the worst outbreak on record is brought under control, the WHO has warned. The outbreak began in Guinea and spread to Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Senegal.
In Liberia, the number of new cases is increasing far faster than the number of beds, the WHO said Monday after conducting an assessment with local government representatives. As soon as a new care facility opens, it is immediately filled to overflowing.
“When patients are turned away at Ebola treatment centers, they have no choice but to return to their communities and homes, where they inevitably infect others,” the WHO said in a statement.
Those who care for patients are among those hardest-hit by Ebola, which is spread through contact with the bodily fluids of its victims. In Liberia alone, about 152 healthcare workers have contracted the virus and 79 have died, according to the WHO.
The country, which is still recovering from years of war, had only about one doctor for every 100,000 people when the outbreak began. “Every infection or death of a doctor or nurse depletes response capacity significantly,” the WHO said.
Humanitarian workers have expressed concern that fear of contracting the hemorrhagic fever is keeping local and international medical professionals from responding in the numbers needed to contain the outbreak. There is no vaccine or cure.
In neighboring Sierra Leone, a WHO doctor who was working at an Ebola facility tested positive for the virus and will be evacuated, the agency announced Monday. It was the second time that an international health worker dispatched by the WHO to Sierra Leone has become infected.
In an interview broadcast Sunday, President Obama said that the U.S. military will help set up isolation units and equipment for the public health workers arriving in West Africa from around the world.
The troops will establish a 25-bed field hospital in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, to care for health workers, Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said Monday.
The military does not plan to have a permanent presence at the facility, which will be turned over to the Liberian government once it has been set up, the Pentagon said in a statement. But it will ensure that supplies are maintained at the hospital and will provide the periodic support needed to keep it functioning for up to 180 days.
“If we don’t make that effort now, and this spreads not just through Africa, but other parts of the world, there’s the prospect then that the virus mutates, it becomes more easily transmittable, and then it could be a serious danger to the United States,” Obama told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
British military engineers and medical experts will build and operate a 62-bed care facility near the Sierra Leone capital, Freetown, the British Department for International Development said Monday.
Staffed by local and international personnel, it will include a 12-bed center providing specialist care for health workers to “ensure they can continue to respond to the disease as safely and efficiently as possible,” it said in a statement.
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