Defense Department officials are discussing the possibility of sending more personnel to western Africa to assist with the Ebola epidemic there.
A source familiar with the discussions said Pentagon officials held meetings Friday to decide how DoD personnel could help with outbreak response.
The U.S. military, and in particular, the Army, has had a longstanding mission in preventing and treating infectious and parasitic diseases in troops, dating to the late 1800s.
The Armed Forces Press Service reported late Friday that military health workers, including an entomologist from the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, already are in the affected area providing support ranging from logistical assistance to "clinical management" — assisting in treating affected populations.
"DoD personnel bring a level of excellence second to none, working in response to host nations and WHO in the most-affected countries of Sierra Leone and Liberia," Army Col. James Cummings, a physician and director of the Global Emerging Infections Surveillance and Response System at the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center told AFPS.
Filoviruses like Ebola have been of interest to the Pentagon since the late 1970s, mainly because Ebola and its fellow viruses have high mortality rates — in the current outbreak, roughly 60 percent to 72 percent of those who have contracted the disease have died — and its stable nature in aerosol make it attractive as a potential biological weapon.
Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, researchers at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases have sought to develop a vaccine or treatment for the disease.
Last year, USAMRIID scientists used a treatment, MB-003, on primates infected with Ebola after they became symptomatic; the treatment fully protected the animals when given one hour after exposure.
Two-thirds of infected primates were protected when treated 48 hours after exposure, according to a report published last August in Science Translational Medicine.
In March, the Food and Drug Administration granted fast-track status to the development of another Ebola treatment, TKM-Ebola, developed under a $140 million contract with DoD, although earlier this month, the FDA placed a human clinical study of TKM-Ebola on hold, requesting more information on the protocol before allowing it to proceed.
And last year, DoD awarded a $4.4 million grant to the Vanderbilt Vaccine Center at Vanderbilt University to study vaccine development and treatment for Ebola and another filovirus, Marburg.
The current outbreak in western Africa has killed 729 and sickened an additional 594 in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone, according to the World Health Organization.
Centers for Disease Control officials said Thursday they will send an additional 50 disease experts to the affected region in the next month.
The CDC also issued a"Level 3" travel advisory on Thursday warning travelers to avoid nonessential travel to the affected countries. And on Friday, it sent an alert to all U.S. hospitals providing guidance on preventing the spread of Ebola and on isolating patients suspected of having the disease.
"This is the biggest and most complex Ebola outbreak in history. Far too many lives have been lost already," CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden said during a conference call with reporters on Thursday. "It will take many months, and it won't be easy, but Ebola can be stopped."
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Dr. Jonathan Woodson said Friday that global health is a national security issue and the Pentagon plays a major role in preventing and responding to security threats from health catastrophes.
Woodson said DoD remains broadly engaged in international public health matters.
"One of the things I don't think many people realize is what a huge valuable asset the military health system is to this nation," he said Friday in a television interview on "Defense News with Vago Muradian."
"Not only are we a key enabler so that service members, men and women who ... go in harm's way will be taken care of, but we are a public health system, an education system, a research and development system," Woodson said.
"The recent development with infectious disease issues in Africa — they are turning to the U.S. military to provide expertise."