WASHINGTON — The Defense Department will operate seven mobile testing labs in Liberia to fight the spread of Ebola, the head of U.S. Africa Command said Tuesday at the Pentagon.
Hundreds of DOD personnel are in Liberia laying the groundwork for a U.S. military mission to fight the outbreak that the World Health Organization estimates has killed more than 3,400 people. Thousands of U.S. soldiers are scheduled to arrive this month to build treatment centers and oversee logistics.
The humanitarian mission is likely to cost about $750 million over the coming sixth months, Gen. David Rodriguez said.
Defense officials have repeatedly said troops have no contact with disease sufferers, but Rodriguez said Tuesday that a few military infectious disease specialists would be working with contaminated blood samples in the mobile labs.
“This is not just medical guys trained to do this [particular task], this is what they do for a living,” he said.
One such lab has been operational in Liberia for years, while two more were recently deployed. DOD now is working to send four more labs, he said — each operated by three or four technicians — needed because Ebola symptoms can mimic other tropical diseases, such as malaria.
“The testing really focuses on who you need to treat and who you don’t need to treat, because malaria shows a similar problem with the symptoms,” he said.
Making sure U.S. personnel don’t catch Ebola is priority No. 1, Rodriguez said.
“By providing predeployment training, adhering to strict medical protocols while deployed, and carrying out carefully planned reintegration measures based on risk and exposure, I am confident that we can ensure our servicemembers’ safety, and the safety of their families and the American people,” he said.
While deployed, troops will use safety clothing and equipment and wash constantly to prevent the virus spreading. They’ll also be checked for symptoms throughout the day, Rodriguez promised. Should anyone come down with the virus, they’ll be evacuated to the United States for treatment on a specially equipped medical transport plane.
The Army has announced 3,200 soldiers from various units around the United States would deploy, with the potential for up to 4,000 troops to be sent.
Most of those deployed will live at the Liberian defense ministry and in tent cities at airfields or elsewhere, Rodriguez said. The mission could last a year, he guessed, saying it will be adjusted to suit changing conditions on the ground.
“We have a lot of flexibility to put people in there as they’re needed, and who’s needed,” he said.