President Barack Obama on Tuesday hailed progress against the Ebola outbreak in West Africa but said Washington would remain “vigilant,” saying science, not fear, should guide the response to the virus.
Citing his phone conversation with members of a US team dispatched to help combat Ebola, Obama said “the good news is that it’s starting to have an impact.”
“They’re starting to see some progress in Liberia, and the infrastructure is beginning to get built out,” he said.
The American team was sent by the US Agency for International Development to try to help stem the spread of the virus, which has killed more than 4,900 people, mainly in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, since the beginning of the year.
Obama said the disease “can be contained” and vowed: “It will be defeated.”
But “we’re going to have to stay vigilant here at home until we stop the epidemic at its source.”
The United States would continue to play a leading role in the international effort against the outbreak, Obama said.
In addition to the USAID workers, the United States has sent some 600 troops to Liberia and 100 to Senegal to help in the fight against Ebola, and officials have said the number of soldiers could climb to nearly 4,000.
– Facts over fear –
“America in the end is not defined by fear. That’s not who we are. America is defined by possibility. And when we see a problem, and we see a challenge, then we fix it,” Obama said.
The country does not react “based on our fears” but on the basis of “facts,” he said.
Obama stressed the importance of supporting health workers on the front line in Africa, and said the US government was capable of monitoring and responding to any potential isolated cases of Ebola.
Seeking to reassure public fears, Obama noted that, of seven Americans treated for Ebola in the United States, “all have survived.”
The one patient who has died of Ebola in a US hospital was a Liberian, Thomas Eric Duncan.
Another patient, American doctor Craig Spencer, is still being treated for the virus, at Bellevue Hospital in New York.
Obama was asked about an apparent contradiction in his administration’s policies on Ebola after the Pentagon said top commanders had urged a 21-day quarantine for all US troops returning from West Africa.
Civilian health workers sent by the US government to the region were not being subjected to the same quarantine measures as American troops, as health officials have concluded that such steps are not needed or justified by the science on how the virus spreads.
But Obama said “the military is in a different situation,” because troops were not in West Africa voluntarily but were ordered there.
“It’s part of their mission that’s been assigned to them by their commanders and ultimately by me, the commander in chief. So we don’t expect to have similar rules for our military as we do for our civilians,” Obama said.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has yet to make a final decision after receiving the quarantine recommendation from the chiefs of all the armed forces, officials said.
A first group of 12 soldiers, including a major general, returning from Liberia have been placed in isolation for a 21-day period at a base in Vicenza, Italy, as a precaution, according to the Pentagon.
The US Army’s chief, General Ray Odierno, ordered the quarantine for army troops coming back from their mission in Liberia and Senegal.
The top brass is urging the quarantine apply to troops from all the branches of the military, not just the army.