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3,000 U.S. military members to fight Ebola in Africa

A man washes his hands as a preventive measure against the Ebola virus on a street in Monrovia, Liberia, on September 13, 2014

REUTERS

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration will assign 3,000 U.S. military personnel to West Africa "to combat and contain" what senior administration officials call an "extraordinarily serious epidemic."

This new assistance will supply medical and logistical support to overwhelmed local health care systems and increase the number of beds needed to isolate and treat victims of the Ebola crisis.

President Obama planned to announce the expanded effort Tuesday during a visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, amid alarm that the outbreak could spread. Officials fear the deadly virus could mutate into a more easily transmitted disease.

The new U.S. muscle comes after appeals from officials in the African region and from aid organizations for a heightened U.S. role in combatting the outbreak, which has been blamed for more than 2,200 deaths so far.

Administration officials said Monday that the new initiatives aim to:

-- Train as many as 500 health care workers each week.

-- Erect 17 heath care facilities in the region each with 100 beds.

-- Set up a joint command headquartered in Monrovia, Liberia, to coordinate between U.S. and international relief efforts.

-- Provide home health care kits to hundreds of thousands of households, including 50,000 that the U.S. Agency for International Development will deliver to Liberia this week.

-- Carry out a home- and community-based campaign to train local populations on how to handle exposed patients.

The officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the plans ahead of Mr. Obama's announcement, said the cost of the effort would come from $500 million in overseas contingency operations. The Pentagon has asked Congress to redirect funds in order to carry out humanitarian efforts in Iraq and West Africa.

It would take about two weeks to get U.S. forces on the ground, the officials said.

Sen. Chris Coons, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations African Affairs subcommittee, applauded the new U.S. commitment. Coons had previously called for the Obama administration to step up its role in West Africa.

"This humanitarian intervention should serve as a firewall against a global security crisis that has the potential to reach American soil," Coons said.

Hardest hit by the outbreak are Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. The virus also has reached Nigeria and Senegal.

Ebola is spread through direct contact with the bodily fluids of sick patients, making doctors and nurses especially vulnerable to contracting the virus that still has no vaccine or approved treatment.

Mr. Obama's trip to the CDC comes a day after the United States also demanded increased international response to the outbreak. On Monday, The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power called for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Thursday. She warned that the potential risk of the virus could "set the countries of West Africa back a generation."

Power said the meeting Thursday would mark a rare occasion when the Security Council, which is responsible for threats to international peace and security, addresses a public health crisis.

In addition to addressing representatives from the affected countries, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was expected to brief the council along with World Health Organization chief Dr. Margaret Chan and Dr. David Nabarro, the recently named U.N. coordinator to tackle the disease.

On Monday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest responded to criticism that the U.S. needed a more forceful response to the outbreak.

Earnest said Mr. Obama has identified the outbreak "as a top national security priority," worried it could contribute to political instability in the region and that, left unchecked, the virus could transform and become more contagious.

He said the administration responded "pretty aggressively" when the outbreak was first reported in March.

"Since that time our assistance has steadily been ramping up," Earnest said.

The Senate was also to weigh in Tuesday with a hearing to examine the U.S. response. An American missionary doctor who survived the disease was among those scheduled to testify.

Four Americans have been or are being treated for Ebola in the U.S. after evacuation from Africa.

The U.S. has spent more than $100 million responding to the outbreak and has offered to operate treatment centers for patients so far.