To fight a raging virus, you need boots on the ground.
This simple yet strange idea has prompted the Obama Administration to pledge 3,000 U.S. forces to fight Ebola in Liberia, as well as training for healthcare workers and a command post to coordinate international relief efforts.
Major problems combating the spread of Ebola include lack of beds, proper medical training and a lack of effective coordination among disparate relief efforts. The U.S. has already spent $175 million to support international health workers and has federal health workers on the ground. But the U.S military, perhaps the best-organized bureaucracy in the world, will help overcome these roadblocks to stopping the disease that has killed over 2,600 and infected scores more.
With numerous reports of armed men looting Ebola clinics in Liberia and releasing confirmed Ebola patients, the U.S. military should also help train local police and military forces in effective quarantine and isolation enforcement.
This became apparent during the quarantine of West Point, a Monrovia slum, which resulted in lethal battles between residents wary of being stuck in the slum and the Liberian military. Proper training, from better military-civilian communication to better tactical planning,would help local forces prevent such attacks on health care workers and facilities, which continue to impede the fight against Ebola.
To some, sending U.S. forces to Liberia may seem like an overreaction or a misuse of the military. However, the immense risk of biological attack at home, via Ebola or otherwise, warrants this move that will hasten the end of the epidemic.
First, Ebola has an incubation period ranging from two to 21 days, meaning that an infected individual could board a plane and head to the U.S. undetected. While the Center for Disease Control and Prevention implements some airport screening, it will be difficult to detect an individual with late onset symptoms from boarding a plane to the U.S. and spreading the disease.
Second, although the current Zaire strain spreads among humans via the exchange of bodily fluids, a mutated form could instead allow airborne transmission, dramatically increasing infection rates. Although this prospect is unlikely, the longer the virus stays alive and replicates, the greater the chance of mutation occurring and reaching America’s shores.
Finally, the more cases of Ebola that occur, the easier it becomes for a non-state actor to harness and weaponize the live virus. Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese cult that attacked the Tokyo subway system with sarin, sent expeditions to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to extract Ebola cultures in 1994. This task was possible 20 years ago, and remains possible, albeit complicated, today. The best way to protect against this possibility is to stop the disease in its tracks.
With the full range of threats that a biological attack poses to the United States, American troops in Liberia are posed with two primary tasks.
The first and self-evident one is to help international aid workers stop the spread of Ebola. This will be no facile task, as the outbreak is likely to last 12 to 18 months and tally nearly 20,000 total cases, according to the World Health Organization. Ebola must be contained not only to help those currently suffering, but also to decrease the chances of its spread across the Atlantic.
The second, however, is to learn from West Africa’s misfortune in preparation for a future outbreak back home. Such an outbreak will likely not come in the form of Ebola, but rather from influenza, which already infects up to 20 percent of Americans each year. A more dangerous form of the flu could infect millions more, just as the Spanish Flu infected 28 percent of Americans and killed an estimated 675,000. An all-out flu outbreak on U.S. soil would require a thoughtful and well-organized response from our government, especially our military. Fighting Ebola is hands-on experience for military planners in how best to manage such a crisis.
Three thousand American troops on the ground in Liberia will provide limited assistance in the fight against Ebola. It may not be enough to eliminate the disease from the region, but will undoubtedly help strained healthcare authorities regain momentum.
But American forces in Liberia do more than just fight Ebola; they also help us to comprehend the grave threat that disease poses to our way of life. We must ensure that their sacrifice is not in vain. Now is the time to prepare.
Contact AZ Gordon at zelinger ‘at’ stanford.edu.