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Will Obama's Plan Bring The Ebola Outbreak Under Control?

President Obama meets with Emory University doctors and health care workers during his visit Tuesday to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. (AFP/Getty Images)

It is the biggest anti-Ebola effort yet.

After months of calls by aid workers for the global community to do something about the escalating crisis, President Obama has announced plans for a massive international intervention.

His $175 million proposal is more expensive, far-reaching and ambitious than anything else that's been thrown at this outbreak. Aid groups and health workers battling Ebola welcome the plan — but raise some concerns.

Obama made the announcement at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on Tuesday afternoon. Stating that the Ebola epidemic in West Africa has become a global-security threat, he said rapid action is needed to bring it under control. Obama will send thousands of American military personnel to the region to build hospitals, train health care workers and deliver relief supplies.

"At the request of the Liberian government, we are going to establish a military command center in Liberia to support civilian efforts across the region," he said.

The Defense Department is also going to set up a logistics base in Senegal to ferry personnel and relief supplies to the countries hardest hit by the disease. American troops will construct 17 Ebola treatment centers in Liberia. They'll also set up a health-care facility to train thousands of locals to look after people infected with the deadly disease.

An administration official, speaking on background, says the tab for the Defense Department's Ebola response efforts could run as high as a billion dollars.

In addition, the U.S. Agency for International Development will help distribute hundreds of thousands of personal protective kits to homes in the region, with gloves, masks and disinfectant.

Doctors Without Borders has been warning for months that this Ebola outbreak is out of control. Brice de la Vigne, the operations director for the group in Brussels, says the U.S. plan is a step in the right direction. He just hopes it can be put in place quickly.

"Time is a key element," says de la Vigne. "Whatever the deployment, it needs to happen very, very quick."

The Obama administration says military personnel are already being sent. The goal is to have much of the program up and running within weeks.

The tasks that lie ahead are daunting, says Fitzhugh Mullan, a professor of public health policy at George Washington University who has studied health care in Africa. The public health systems in the parts of West Africa where this outbreak is raging were incredibly weak even before Ebola arrived, he notes, and trying to train 500 new health-care workers a week in even the best environment would be a challenge.

Mullan calls Obama's plan unconventional and experimental, but says there aren't many other options on the table.

"I think it's ambitious, but I don't think you have a choice," he says. "The alternative — to do this by the book — will undoubtedly let the epidemic get way out beyond you."

After all, this is an unprecedented outbreak. There simply aren't enough health-care workers on the ground to treat all the people who are sick right now — let alone the tens of thousands who could become infected in the coming months.

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In a Sept. 16 press conference from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta President Obama describes the escalated U.S. response to Ebola outbreaks in Africa.
Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A global security threat, that's how far President Obama went in describing the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. The president spoke at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta yesterday afternoon. Mr. Obama said there needs to be rapid action to get the Ebola outbreak under control.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If the outbreak is not stopped now, we could be looking at hundreds of thousands of people infected with profound political and economic and security implications for all of us.

CORNISH: In response, the U.S. is sending thousands of American military personnel to the region to build hospitals, train health care workers and deliver relief supplies. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports that aid groups and health workers in West Africa are welcoming the president's plan.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: After months of calls by aid workers for the global community to do something about the escalating Ebola crisis President Obama announced a plan for a massive international intervention.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

OBAMA: At the request of the Liberian government we're going to establish a military command center in Liberia to support civilian efforts across the region.

BEAUBIEN: The Defense Department is also going to set up a logistics base in Senegal to ferry personnel and relief supplies into the countries hardest hit by Ebola. The Obama administration plan calls for American troops to construct 17 new treatment centers in Liberia. They'll also set up a facility to train thousands of locals to look after people infected by the deadly virus. An administration official on background says the Ebola response efforts of the Defense Department alone could cost as much as a billion dollars. Doctors Without Borders has been warning for months that this Ebola outbreak is out of control.

BRICE DE LA VIGNE: We need to be ambitious if we want to be able to tackle the disease.

BEAUBIEN: Brice de la Vigne, the operations director for the group in Brussels, says the new U.S. plan is a step in the right direction. He just hopes it can be put into place quickly.

DE LA VIGNE: Time is a key element, and whatever the deployment it needs to happen very, very quickly.

BEAUBIEN: The Obama administration says military personnel are already being sent, and they hope to have much of this running within weeks. Fitzhugh Mullan, a professor of public health policy at George Washington University, has studied medical education in Africa extensively. He says the public health systems in the parts of West Africa where this outbreak is raging were incredibly weak even before Ebola arrived. Mullan says trying to train 500 new health care workers a week would be a major challenge anywhere.

FITZHUGH MULLAN: I think it's ambitious, but I'm not sure you have a choice. I mean, the alternative to do this sort of by the book will undoubtedly let the epidemic get way out beyond you.

BEAUBIEN: This is an unprecedented outbreak. There simply aren't enough health care workers to treat all the people who are sick right now. Never mind the tens of thousands who could be infected in the coming months. Foreign aid workers also are not rushing in to help. President Obama's plan to try to rapidly train thousands of West African health care workers, Mullen says, is unconventional and experimental, but he says there aren't many other options on the table. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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