ATLANTA (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers called for a government-funded “war” to contain West Africa’s deadly Ebola epidemic before it threatens more countries, building on an American pledge to send 3,000 military engineers and medical personnel to combat the virus.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers pledged increased support for efforts to contain the virus that has killed nearly 2,500 people out of almost 5,000 cases in West Africa.
“We need to declare a war on Ebola,” Senator Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, said during a joint hearing before the Senate committees on Appropriations and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, said the country should view the threat of Ebola “as seriously as we take ISIS,” referring to the Islamic State militant group in Syria and Iraq.
The hearing was the Senate’s first on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, an epidemic the likes of which have not been seen before, President Barack Obama said during a meeting with top U.S. public health officials.
“It’s spiraling out of control, it’s getting worse,” he said at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, where he flew to outline the plan to deploy 3,000 troops to West Africa.
The deployment represented a ramping-up in the Obama administration’s response to the worst Ebola outbreak on record. It comes after repeated calls for governments to step in and help West African countries whose healthcare systems have been overwhelmed by the epidemic.
In a news conference at the Capitol, U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner said he was “a bit surprised the administration hasn’t acted more quickly to address what is a serious threat, not just to Africans but to others around the world.”
Boehner said in coming weeks, “you’re going to see the Congress and the administration take further steps to look at how do we best contain this very horrible disease.”
Acknowledging that the epidemic represented a national security crisis, U.S. administration officials said the focus of the military deployment would be on Liberia, where the threat of chaos is greatest. The disease has also hit hard in Sierra Leone and Guinea, and has led to a handful of deaths in Nigeria.
Under the plan, engineers, medical personnel and other service members would build 17 treatment centers with 100 beds each, train thousands of healthcare workers and establish a military control center for coordinating the relief effort, U.S. officials told reporters.
“Some have asked why should our military be involved,” Senator Alexander said. “They have to be involved, if we want to deal with the problem. There’s no way for the doctors and the nurses and the healthcare workers to deal with it.”
Officials said the Defense Department had sought to reallocate $500 million in funds from fiscal 2014 to help cover the costs of the humanitarian mission.
“The reality is we all have to do more,” said Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington.
Witnesses at the joint hearing said the proposed $88 million included in a stopgap U.S. government funding legislation to be considered by the House on Wednesday will only last through Dec. 11.
The measure, which meets a last-minute request from Obama, provides $30 million for more staff and supplies at the CDC and $58 million to speed up production of Mapp Biopharmaceutical’s experimental Ebola drug ZMapp and vaccine candidates.
“We and others will need more funding. There is no doubt about that,” Dr. Robin Robinson, director of Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said when asked whether his agency had the resources it needs.
United Nations officials on Tuesday estimate it will now take a $1 billion response to contain the outbreak to tens of thousands of cases.
The World Health Organization has said it needs foreign medical teams with 500 to 600 experts as well as at least 10,000 local health workers. The figures may rise if the number of cases increases, as is widely expected.
“If we do not act now to stop the spread of Ebola, we could be dealing with it for years to come, affecting larger areas of Africa,” Dr. Beth Bell, CDC director of the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, told the Senate hearing.
In addition to adding capacity, the U.S. effort in West Africa will focus on training. A site will be established where military medical personnel will teach healthcare workers how to care for Ebola patients, at a rate of 500 workers per week for six months or longer, officials said.
The U.S. Agency for International Development will support a program to distribute home protection kits with sanitizers and medical supplies to 400,000 households in Liberia, something Dr Kent Brantly, a U.S. missionary doctor who has recovered from Ebola, argued for passionately at the hearing.
Although some critics have said such kits might encourage families to treat Ebola patients at home, risking spreading the disease, Brantly said health agencies must “be open to practical interventions” that could help keep families safe from a disease he described as “a fire, straight from the pit of hell.”
Additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva, Sha; ron Begley in New York, Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago and Susan Heavey and David Lawder in Washington; Writing by Michele Gershberg; Editing by Jonathan Oatis