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101st Airborne soldiers gear up to fight Ebola outbreak

Sgt. 1st Class Venrick James, right, helps Maj. John Dills put on his nitrile gloves during training inside the Medical Skills Training Center at Fort Hood, Texas, on Oct. 9, 2014. That same day at Fort Campbell, Ky., soldiers with the 101st Airborne were receiving similar training in preparation for a deployment to West Africa to help in the fight against Ebola.

Daniel Wallace/U.S. Army

By Chris Kenning | USA Today | Published: October 11, 2014

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. — Wearing a hooded chemical suit, breathing mask and two layers of gloves, Pvt. Antwon Phillips raised his arms as an instructor showed him how to scrub and spray with bleach in case of exposure to Ebola.

He was among more than 150 members of the 101st Airborne who were trained Thursday on how to avoid the deadly virus during their upcoming deployment to Liberia.

Across the gym at Fort Campbell, Sgt. Jesus Sanchez said, "We're so used to being in Iraq and Afghanistan, where you know what you're going to get. This is a lot different.

"I'll be honest with you," he added. "I'm kind of scared ... but we're going out there to help."

At least 700 members of the division will deploy to Liberia starting next week as part of the U.S. military's 4,000-soldier humanitarian mission, which is expected to last up to a year and is aimed at building 17 100-bed Ebola care centers and training hundreds of health care workers.

The goal is to stop the spread of a virus that has infected more than 7,470 in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia and killed more than 3,400, though experts say the actual number is likely much higher.

The virus is still spreading in part because of a dearth of hospitals and trained health care workers. As a result, too few patients are being isolated, said Josh Michaud, associate director of global health policy for the Kaiser Foundation.

"That's why there is such urgency to get the 17 treatment units that U.S. military units will assist with," he said.

The soldiers, with specialties in areas such as combat hospitals, aviation, logistics, transportation and engineering, will not be providing direct treatment or having contact with Ebola patients, so the risk is considered to be low, said Lt. Col. Brian DeSantis, the 101st Airborne's spokesman.

But at Thursday's safety training, soldiers were briefed on how Ebola is spread and what symptoms to look for. They were told to seek medical care at the first sign of trouble and not to shake hands or touch residents. They were told not to eat or drink anything that wasn't provided by the U.S. government.

And they were told that using protective gear was critical, particularly when handling blood specimens in a lab or standing guard near public areas. They were shown how to use layers of gloves, chemical suits, masks and special boots.

Capt. Tyler Mark said that while Liberia posed threats from malaria and poisonous snakes to water-borne illness, Ebola has a more than 50 percent death rate and "basically causes your body to eat itself from the inside out."

"The environment we're going into is drastically different (from Afghanistan) ... the stuff that can kill you is much worse," he said.

Still, Ondraya Frick, a microbiologist with the Army's Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, stressed during the training that while the chances of contracting Ebola were "very low," that event could be "catastrophic."

Soldiers' health will be monitored, officials.

Some of the soldiers may be housed in Liberian government buildings or in tent areas, military officials said. In addition, they will be spread across the country, including in Monrovia, the capital, they said..

The military's effort to build the Ebola treatment units could be finished within a couple of months.

Michaud said the training of Liberian health workers also will help fill part of the health care shortage. With the deaths of some health workers, some volunteer groups have been reluctant to send in workers, he said.

"It's a frightening disease, and with a high fatality rate, it would give anyone second thoughts about rushing in there," he said.

Col. Christopher Warner, surgeon for the division, said returning soldiers may be placed in isolation for several weeks but that Department of Defense officials haven't finalized a plan.

While thus far only 700 soldiers from the 101st are deploying, more than 1,400 are being trained in case that figure rises, division officials said.

The deployment comes roughly six months after Ebola was identified in what has become the worst outbreak of the virus since it first appeared in the mid-1970s.

Transmitted by close or direct contact with infected bodily fluids such as blood, feces, vomit or urine, Ebola causes fever and intense flu symptoms followed by vomiting, diarrhea, rash, impaired kidney and liver function and bleeding.

There is no cure, and an experimental drug remains unproven and isn't widely available. Scientists are working on a vaccine, but none yet exists.

Several soldiers said their families were concerned about the deployment, and unlike past ones, they got little advance warning. Some said they felt better after the training, feeling they would be safe. But it left others unnerved.

Maj. Jim Wade, who has two young kids, said he was confident he could remain safe. Despite the dangers, he said, "it's our job."
 

Maj. John Dills, left, the 36th Engineer Brigade chief of current operations, helps zip and close a protective suit around the M40 protective mask on Sgt. 1st Class Venrick James, during training inside the Medical Skills Training Center at Fort Hood, Texas, on Oct. 9, 2014. That same day at Fort Campbell, Ky., soldiers with the 101st Airborne were receiving similar training in preparation for a deployment to West Africa to help in the fight against Ebola.
Daniel Wallace/U.S. Army

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