As many as 28 U.S. military personnel could come in contact with Ebola while stationed in West Africa as part of a mission to stop the disease's spread, the head of U.S. Africa Command (Africom) said Tuesday. He later clarified his comments, saying military technicians would test specimen samples from suspected victims rather than be in contact with Ebola patients themselves.
Those individuals would be working in mobile labs designed to test for the disease, and would be trained "at the highest level," Africom Commander Gen. David Rodriguez told reporters at a Pentagon press briefing. Each lab has a team of three to four people, and there are already three labs set up in Liberia -- one of the countries hit hardest by the current epidemic. A request for four more is in the works. But a "majority of the force" deployed to West Africa will have no contact with Ebola patients, stressed Rodriguez, and are going solely to provide training, logistics, and engineering support.
"The health and safety of the team supporting this mission is our priority," said the commander. "I am confident we can ensure our service members' safety."
As part of President Obama's pledge to lead a robust international response to the Ebola outbreak, which has killed over 3,400 people in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, the U.S. is sending up to 4,000 military personnel to West Africa.
In the past, defense officials have said that none of the troops would have direct exposure to patients infected with Ebola.
The mission is expected to cost $750 million over a six month period, said Rodriguez, but that's subject to change.
"It's going to have to be a free-flowing, flexible adjustment," he said. Rodriguez also left open the possibility that the number of troops would go up, but added that he did not "foresee more than [4,000] right now."
Should any service member contract Ebola while deployed in West Africa, the individual would be transported back to the U.S. for treatment in the same way that five other Americans were brought back in recent weeks, said Rodriguez. All service members in West Africa will have to adhere to strict hygiene and personal protective equipment protocols, as well as constant monitoring.
"Stopping the spread of this disease is the core mission," said Rodriguez. "We are focused in all our efforts to accomplish this both by supporting the international effort, and by keeping our people as safe as we can."
In recent weeks, the Ebola epidemic has transformed from a regional nightmare into a global security threat. A Spanish nurse who helped treat missionaries infected with the disease last month has been hospitalized after testing positive twice for Ebola. She is the first person to contract the disease outside of West Africa, and likely not the last. On Tuesday, the World Health Organization's European director said similar cases were "quite unavoidable.