The U.S. Helped Beat Back Ebola — Only Not In The Way You Might Think

Feb 11, 2015
Originally published on February 12, 2015 7:08 pm

Hundreds of U.S. troops, sent to help fight Ebola in West Africa, are now coming home. That's the news from the White House today.

Did they make a difference?

Not in the way you'd think. The grand plans to build 17 new field hospitals in Liberia and train thousands of health care workers, announced in September, didn't quite come off. Several of the hospitals weren't needed and were never built. Others opened after the epidemic had peaked and were practically empty. Only a fraction of the promised health workers were trained.

But even though the hospital-building strategy wasn't the most productive, the U.S. did have a significant impact.

Tom Kirsch, who runs the Center for Refugee and Disaster Response at John's Hopkins University, says the deployment of U.S. troops sent a strong message internationally — and it was about more than just building or not building new Ebola hospitals.

At the time the U.S. went in, he explains, "most of the ports along West African coast were blocking transport in to Liberia, the airlines had begun to pull out. And only one or two carriers were still left. So the logistical capacities that the U.S. military brought I think were probably the most important part of their response."

In other words, the military got things where they needed to go. The U.S. Air Force, for example, set up an air supply line from Senegal to ferry supplies in.

That's not all the U.S. accomplished. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention helped create systems to track cases. The U.S sent in mobile laboratories to test blood sample of suspected Ebola patients. This cut the time it took to diagnose — or rule out — an Ebola infection from days to just a few hours.

Over the last year the U.S. spent nearly a billion dollars fighting Ebola in West Africa. And only about a third of that went to the military part of the response. The $939 million the U.S. has spent on the outbreak is far more than the other leading donors — the U.K., Germany, the World Bank and the European Commission — combined.

Just because most of the troops are coming home doesn't mean the battle is over. President Obama says there is still a lot to be done to completely stop the spread of the deadly virus — and it's not charity work.

"In the 21st century, we cannot build moats around our countries," Obama said today. "There are no draw bridges to be pulled up. We shouldn't try. "

And he vowed that the U.S. civilian response to the Ebola outbreak will continue until there are "zero" cases in West Africa.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

President Obama said today that the U.S. will withdraw most of the troops sent to West Africa to combat Ebola. Thousands of troops were deployed to Liberia last fall to build treatment hospitals. As NPR's Jason Beaubien reports, that was only one part of the U.S. response to the deadly outbreak, and it wasn't the most productive.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: President Obama today, in announcing the withdrawal of hundreds of troops from West Africa, stressed that this Ebola outbreak still is not over.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We're shifting our focus from fighting the epidemic to now extinguishing it.

BEAUBIEN: In September when Obama ordered the deployment of the military to Liberia, the outbreak was surging forward at a startling pace. At the time there were nearly a thousand new Ebola cases each week. The plan was to have American troops build 17 new field hospitals and train thousands of healthcare workers. Several of those hospitals weren't needed and were never built. Others opened after the epidemic had peaked and were practically empty. Only a fraction of the promised health workers were ever trained. But Tom Kirsch who runs the Center for Refugee and Disaster Response at Johns Hopkins University says the deployment of U.S. troops sent a strong message internationally, and it was about more than just building or not building new Ebola hospitals.

TOM KIRSCH: Most of the ports along the West African coast were blocking transport into Liberia. The airlines had begun to pull out, and only one or two carriers were even left. And so the logistical capacities that the U.S. military brought, I think, were probably the most important part of their response.

BEAUBIEN: The U.S. Air Force set up an air supply line from Senegal to ferry supplies into the region. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention helped create systems to track cases. The U.S. sent in mobile laboratories to test blood samples of suspected Ebola patients. This cut the time it took to diagnose or rule out an Ebola infection from days down to just a few hours.

And USAID had staff on the ground from the very early days of the epidemic. Over the last year, the U.S. spent nearly a billion dollars fighting Ebola in West Africa, and only about a third of that went to the military part of the response. The 939 million the U.S. has spent so far on the outbreak is far more than the other leading donors - the U.K., Germany, the World Bank and the European Commission - combined. Obama today said, in our interconnected, globalized world, this was not charity.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: In the 21st century, we cannot build moats around our countries. There are no drawbridges to be pulled up. We shouldn't try.

BEAUBIEN: And he vowed that the U.S. civilian response to the Ebola outbreak will continue until there are zero cases in West Africa. Jason Beaubien, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.