By Annabel Lau
The United States has pledged $350 million and 3,000 troops to fight the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, according to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services official who spoke at the College on Wednesday, Oct. 8.
“There are about 350 military people already on the ground,” said Ambassador Jimmy Kolker, assistant secretary for global affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services. “We’ve just about completed a 25-bed facility which will be staffed by the U.S. public health service.”
Congressman Rush Holt (D–12th District), who attended the lecture, asked about the military’s plan for fighting the outbreak.
“Does this suggest an ongoing goal for a very special division of our military that deals with international disaster and crises?” Holt asked.
Responding, Kolker said “they’ve been very careful about trying to define the goal with an exit strategy.”
“The military said they will not be in patient care,” Kolker said. “After constructing these facilities, they need to be turned over to someone else … They don’t want to see this as a new mission (where) boots on the ground will be required for this to be sustained.”
Senior international studies and linguistics double major Nicolas Dolce had conflicting views about the mobilization of Americans troops in West Africa.
“I was very interested to hear that we’re going to send 3,000 troops there,” Dolce said. “I think it’s the right thing to do … (But) there’s a gray line, because after a certain point, are we violating the state’s sovereignty? Did we get invited to help, or are we just going in there and saying we’re helping?”
In addition to military and monetary aid, an important part of curbing the Ebola outbreak is educating governments and communities about disease prevention, especially in the three hardest-hit countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, Kolker said.
“The cause of this was the health facilities that were not taking precautions in terms of healthcare workers,” Kolker said. “Twenty percent of infections are among healthcare workers.”
Referencing the case of Thomas Eric Duncan — an Ebola victim who was allegedly released from a Dallas hospital with a 103-degree fever and became the first person to die of the virus on American soil — Kolker also addressed the recurring problem of mistaking symptoms of Ebola for other diseases.
“The symptoms for Ebola originally are similar to those for malaria, for typhoid and other things,” Kolker said. “The diagnosis was often wrong. They’d be sent home like the Dallas patient originally was.”
According to Kolker, many people in West Africa believe in “nonscientific causes” of Ebola, such as curses and ancestor revenge, and many engage in traditional practices that increase the risk of contracting the virus, such as touching or embracing corpses during burial practices.
“There’s a responsibility among all of us to be sure the governments are aware and then to have that message spread to healthcare providers and communities,” Kolker said. “There was a breakdown in all of those areas.”
In response to audience concerns, Kolker also mentioned new precautions that the U.S. government is taking to prevent Ebola from entering the country.
“Just this afternoon (Wednesday, Oct. 8), President Obama announced what we are doing domestically in a dozen or more airports here to intensify screenings,” Kolker said. “So there would be mandatory screenings of anyone who has come from these three countries.”
However, according to Kolker, the risk of contracting Ebola for the vast majority of Americans is low, even for students traveling to Africa.
“You’re much more likely to be in a traffic accident than to be a victim of Ebola,” Kolker said. “Your greatest threat is traffic safety, not Ebola or terrorism or another infectious disease.”