President Obama is all but ending the U.S. military mission to Liberia to fight Ebola next month, as infection rates there fall to near zero.
The number of troops deployed to the West African country, which reached nearly 3,000 in December, will fall to 1,300 this week and decline through the end of March as soldiers head home, according to a U.S. official familiar with the U.S. government efforts. The official declined to be identified because the government is not ready to disclose its plans to the public. The official said the returning troops would be replaced by a force of about 100 for at least the near term.
"They are drawing down gradually with a visible timeline," Liberian Defense Minister Brownie Samukai said of the U.S. military effort to stop the spread of the deadly virus.Brice de la Vingne, director of operations for Doctors Without Borders, a leading aid group in the fight against Ebola in West Africa, said U.S. forces "are pulling out."
Neither White House officials nor Maj. Gen. Gary Volesky, commanding troops in Liberia, would comment on any future plans.
In the five months U.S. troops have served in West Africa building clinics, providing medical training and testing for the presence of Ebola in blood and swab samples, there have been no cases of viral infection among service members, a major concern when Obama sent the military in to fight the disease.
It remains unclear, however, how much of a direct role the more-than $900 million troop deployment played in the decline of a disease that killed more than 3,700 people in Liberia. Illness rates began to fall precipitously last November, weeks before U.S. troops completed core missions of building clinics and training staff.
The 10 Ebola treatment units built by U.S. forces, along with eight others in Liberia raised with money from the U.S. and other nations, are nearly empty as new Ebola cases have fallen to less than one per day.
The Liberian government has chosen to shutter or re-purpose four clinics, including one that was built with U.S. money, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Samukai said he understands that some level of U.S. civilian and military presence will continue in Liberia as the country transitions from fighting Ebola to rebuilding its healthcare system. "The scaling back doens't necessary mean the scaling back of assistance," he said.
Since the outbreak early last year, nearly 9,000 people have died across the three most stricken nations of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. But infection rates are falling in Liberia and Sierra Leone and close to stabilizing in Guinea. There were fewer than 100 new cases in one week last month for all three nations combined, the first time that has happened since June, according to the WHO.
An airman part of the Joint Task Force-Port Opening team of the 621st Contingency Response Wing assigned to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., helps to augment airport security Oct. 16 during Operation United Assistance.
Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Gustavo Gonzalez/Air Force
Samukai said the presence of U.S. troops had a galvanizing effect on the Ebola response among Liberians. "The American presence was seen in probably more than half the country on a daily basis," he said. "(It) reinforced the need for everyone to take the situation and their response to Ebola very serious."
"I will call it a game changer in the way that it helped trigger a bigger response from the international community," said de la Vingne, the Doctors Without Borders official. He said the mere presence of American troops dissuaded average Liberians from blaming the deaths on a government conspiracy or witchcraft.
"You cannot say that the impact the Americans made was a game changer with respect to the epidemic itself and the direction of infection rates," de la Vingne said.
What caused the dramatic decline beginning in November remains to be studied, experts say.There is a broad sense Liberians themselves simply became more pro-active in guarding against the spread of Ebola, accepting the need to collect and burn bodies and using proper hygiene.
During the worst of the epidemic, villagers in the town of Sinje set aside one of their houses and required visitors from the capital, Monrovia — where the disease was raging in certain neighborhoods — to stay there, isolating them as a precaution whether or not symptoms were present, said the town chief Siafa Perry. Then the house was sprayed down with bleach after the visitor left.
"They knew more and more how to behave and how not to get infected," de la Vigne said.
"I would definitely give that credit to the community leaders," Samukai said. "The communities took the initiative. They went from house to house, community to community, volunteers ... warning their neighbors and talking to their neighbors and telling them what was required."
Army Lt. Col. Kevin Baird practices donning personal protective equipment Oct. 15 at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., while preparing for a deployment to West Africa in support of Operation United Assistance.
Photo Credit: Senior Airman Kayla Newman/Air Force
American officials tried to be nimble as numbers of cases declined, cutting from 100 beds to 50 the size of clinics being built or sending home troops not needed. But they proceeded with Ebola clinic construction and training amid concerns by Liberian leaders that the disease could quickly re-emerge.
"'We had to go with a full court press because the consequences if we didn't get this thing under control were not only significant for Liberia and the neighboring countries, but also on a global scale as we saw with some cases coming to the U.S," said Doug Mercado, West Africa regional director for USAID, Mercado characterized the empty clinics today as fire stations -- available should another outbreak occur.
"Until such time as we've finally gotten rid of all the cases of Ebola, not only Liberia, but the region, there's a threat to communities throughout this country," says Mercado,
The U.S. military also assisted with setting up laboratories for testing blood and swab samples for the presence of Ebola, expediting diagnosis of the disease.
Mercado emphasized that the clinic training of more than 1,500 Liberians by military troops would be a lasting investment in Liberia's severely damaged healthcare system.
"I think those skills are going to stay behind and be quite useful should there ever be another outbreak of Ebola," Mercado said. "Hopefully, there won't be a next time. But should there be a next time, at least they're not starting from zero."