WASHINGTON (AFP) – The US military will join the fight against fast-spreading Ebola in Africa, President Barack Obama said in an interview aired Sunday, but he warned it would be months before the epidemic slows.
Obama said that, in its current form, he did not believe Ebola would reach the United States, but warned the virus could mutate and become a much greater threat to those outside Africa.
The president argued that the deadly toll of the disease was being exacerbated because of the rudimentary public health infrastructure in Africa.
“We’re 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,” Obama said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“If we do that, then it’s still going to be months before this problem is controllable in Africa,” he said.
But he added, “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.”
The death toll from the Ebola epidemic — which is spreading across West Africa, with Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone the worst hit — has topped 2,000, of nearly 4,000 people who have been infected, according to the World Health Organization.
Obama did not give details on when US military assets might be deployed to tackle the crisis, but said Washington needed to view the outbreak as a “national security priority.”
The pledge of US military support follows the European Union’s decision on Friday to sharply increase funding to tackle the outbreak, boosting previously announced aid to 140 million euros ($183 million).
The European package is designed to boost overstretched health services, fund mobile laboratories for detecting the disease, safeguard the provision of food, water and sanitation as well as help the broader economy and strengthen overall public services.
Obama said the poor infrastructure of public health services in the Ebola-stricken region was responsible for the severity of the outbreak.
“They didn’t have a public health infrastructure. So now what we have is what should be a containable problem breaking loose because people aren’t being quarantined properly. People aren’t being trained properly. There aren’t enough public health workers,” he said.
“It’s also an argument for why, when I go before Congress, and I say, ‘Let’s give some public health aid to countries like Liberia, so that they can set up hospitals and nurses and vaccinations, et cetera,’ you know, sometimes the American public says, ‘Why are we wasting money on them?’
“Well, part of it is because, when we make those short-term investments now, it really pays a lot of dividends in the future.”
Obama’s pledge of support comes amid warnings from aid agencies including Medecins Sans Frontieres that the world was “losing the battle” to contain the disease.
MSF international president Joanne Liu told a briefing at the United Nations in New York last week that the international community had “joined a global coalition of inaction” in dealing with the crisis.