According to the U.S. Department of Defense, December 30, 2013 was epidemiological week 1 for the current Ebola crisis in West Africa. Since that date, more than 4,985 cases — 2,461 of which have resulted in death — have been confirmed or suspected.
Today, nine months after the epidemic’s outbreak, President Obama has made an overdue announcement that the U.S. will deploy an estimated 3,000 troops in an effort to stem the crisis. The response is certainly welcome but it remains far from certain that an intervention by the U.S. military will be sufficient to defeat this deadly epidemic.
President Obama is right to characterize the Ebola outbreak as a top national security priority for the U.S., and the past is instructive for what we might be dealing with in this situation.
The last time that the U.S. declared a health emergency to be a threat to U.S. national security was in 2000, when the Clinton administration designated HIV/AIDS as a threat that could undermine governments, lead to conflict and weaken progress on democracy and economic growth. At that time, the Clinton Administration doubled its budget request to combat HIV/AIDS internationally to $254 million. However, it was not until 2003 when President George W. Bush requested from Congress $15 billion over five years that the U.S. began to turn the tide of that deadly pandemic. It was still another two years before medicines became widely available to those infected with HIV and, in 2008, PEPFAR was reauthorized for $48 billion for another five years.
To date, the Obama administration has spent $175 million to address the rapidly spreading Ebola crisis in West Africa. This is likely to be a fraction of the ultimate cost required to defeat this disease. Recent estimates from the United Nations place the costs around $1 billion.
In addition to involving the U.S. military, President Obama has committed the U.S. to the construction of 17 treatment centers (each of which will have 100 beds) in Liberia and the establishment of a site to train up to 500 local health care providers per week. In terms of containing this deadly disease, this “whole of government” response from the Obama Administration is a good, if belated, start. However, key questions remain.
It is not clear how long the strategy will take to implement and, according to international health officials who spoke with The New York Times, 1,000 beds are needed in the next week alone to contain the spread of the disease. It also is not clear how the U.S. will work with the governments of Sierra Leone and Guinea, as nearly half the cases reported come from those two countries, nor Nigeria and Senegal who also have reported cases.
Over the weekend, chief executives from 11 companies operating in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea made an urgent appeal to the international community to pool its resources to fight Ebola. It is an important development that the U.S. is moving forward with a more aggressive response to this plea. Yet victory will likely require a “whole of community” response from all stakeholders, including governments, businesses, NGOs and others, who want to see the governments of West Africa defeat this deadly scourge.