WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama said the United States military will begin aiding what has been a chaotic and ineffective response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, arguing that it represents a serious national security concern.
The move significantly ramps up the US response and comes as African Union (AU) chiefs held an emergency meeting to hammer out a continent-wide strategy to deal with the epidemic, which has killed more than 2,000 people in West Africa.
"Fighting Ebola must be done in a manner that does not fuel isolation or lead to the stigmatisation of victims, communities and countries," AU Commission chairman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said at the opening of the meeting yesterday in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.
The growing urgency being expressed by international leaders is prompted by mounting calls from groups like the international medical organisation
Doctors Without Borders, which has warned that the world is losing the battle to contain the Ebola epidemic.
Scientists also warned yesterday that more than 22 million people live in parts of Africa where conditions exist for the Ebola virus to jump from animals to humans, a bigger area than previously thought. "The increasing connectedness of the African region means that (the Ebola virus) is now a problem of international concern," disease specialists wrote in the journal eLife.
Mr Obama sounded a similar warning on Sunday, saying that if the US and other countries do not send needed equipment, public health workers and other supplies to the region, that situation could change and the virus could mutate to become more transmissible.
"We are going to have to get US military assets just to set up, for example, isolation units and equipment there to provide security for public health workers surging from around the world," he added. Even so, Mr Obama noted that it would still take months to control the epidemic.
Ms Joanne Liu, the international president of Doctors Without Borders, which has long opposed military involvement by governments, said the situation has become so desperate that it is now appealing for military assets to provide critical logistical and operational support.
Top priorities, she said in a recent interview, include the mass expansion of isolation centres, air bridges to move personnel and equipment to and within the most affected countries, mobile laboratories for testing and diagnosis, and building a regional network of field hospitals to treat suspected or infected medical personnel.
Only the military, Ms Liu added, has the rapid deployment capability and chain-of-command structure necessary now. "Because the response has been so slow, we now have to switch to a mass-casualty response," she said.
The Ebola-hit countries are also struggling with the socio-economic fallout of the epidemic, with growing reports of unrest and food shortages in regions put under quarantine. A growing number of international and regional airlines have also cut air links to the affected region.
Ms Dlamini-Zuma, the AU Commission chairman, warned that in the battle to stop the spread, "we must be careful not to introduce measures that may have more social and economic impact than the disease itself".
WASHINGTON POST, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE