U.S. Engaged in Fighting Ebola from the Start

Ambassador Patrick Gaspard | Letter to the Editor of Sunday Independent | 10/19/2014

Mr. Jovial Rantao
Editor in Chief
Sunday Independent
Sauer Street, Johannesburg
Johannesburg, Gauteng  2000

Dear Mr. Rantao:

Your article “As Africans died, our continent and world slept” in the Sunday Independent on October 12 was both timely and extremely important.  The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is a major crisis that the world needs to continue to respond to with daily urgency and improved coordination.  President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have publicly stated that the world could have done more sooner and have pledged an unprecedented amount of U.S government resources to the effort.  Despite your assertion to the contrary, the U.S. government has been engaged since day one in helping to combat Ebola in the region.  Our response has increased as the epidemic has grown and we have continually reacted to specific requests from African governments.  We have done this not out of narrow self-interest, but because we recognize that Ebola is an urgent global crisis that demands an urgent global response.

The first case of Ebola diagnosed in the United States was announced on September 30.  Sadly, that individual, Thomas Eric Duncan, also became the first person to die of the disease on American soil on October 8.  While the news of his case certainly brought more media attention to the outbreak within the United States, the U.S. response in West Africa was already well established by then.  To argue that the U.S. had “suddenly woken up” to the danger that Ebola posed because of this one death completely disregards all that we had been doing for the previous six months.

  • On March 31, within days of the outbreak being confirmed, a team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Viral Special Pathogens Branch arrived in Guinea to provide expert advice and consultation.  The same week, a team of experts from the CDC arrived in Liberia to provide technical assistance to the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare.
  • By July, CDC had 15 staff deployed in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia to assist with surveillance, laboratory and epidemiology efforts, including case identification and contact tracing
  • On July 31, the CDC announced it was sending an additional 50 disease-control specialists into the three countries in order to establish emergency operation centers in collaboration with the World Health Organization to provide resources and fast diagnoses.
  • On August 14, President Obama spoke by telephone to Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and with Sierra Leonean President Ernest Bai Koroma to underscore the commitment of the United States to work with Liberia, Sierra Leone, and other international partners to contain the outbreak.
  • On September 2, President Obama released a video message to the people of West Africa, and on September 8 he spoke with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to discuss the need for greater international assistance to contain the Ebola outbreak.
  • On September 16 (two weeks before the first confirmed case of Ebola diagnosed in the United States), President Obama announced a significant increase in U.S. resources to West Africa, including thousands of U.S. Military troops.
  • By mid-September, the United States had already committed $300 million toward fighting the outbreak, including funds for  personal protective equipment, medical countermeasures, community health workers, field hospitals, lab surveillance, logistics, relief supplies, and disease detection.
  • In addition, USAID and the State Department announced that the U.S. would provide up to $10 million to support the African Union’s urgent deployment of trained and equipped medical workers to West Africa. This funding complemented USAID’s announcement of plans to make available up to $75 million in additional funds.  An additional $88 million was dedicated to support the development and manufacturing of Ebola therapeutic and vaccine candidates for clinical trials and to send additional response workers from the CDC as well as lab supplies and equipment.
  • The Department of Defense (DOD) also announced it would reprogram up to $1 billion in Fiscal Year 2014 Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funds for humanitarian assistance in FY 2015.

We have already deployed the largest U.S. response to an international public health challenge in our history with hundreds of civilian medical, healthcare, military, and disaster response experts from multiple U.S. government departments and agencies.  President Obama called the world to action during a UN session called by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and previously had convened a special UN Security Council session on the epidemic. These U.S. actions have galvanized additional millions of dollars in international funding and in-kind support.

By the end of October, we plan on deploying at least 3,200 U.S. military troops to West Africa. They will oversee the construction of at least seventeen 100-bed Ebola treatment units across Liberia and establish a training site to train up to 500 health care providers per week. Since March, the U.S. has committed more than $350 million, and is prepared to commit more than $1 billion.

As you rightly point out in your article, some countries have been slow to provide assistance or even recognize until now the global health danger that the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa poses. But the facts show that the United States has been engaged from the beginning.

Patrick H. Gaspard