US troops in Liberia struggle to catch up to Ebola outbreak

The official tally is 6571 cases of Ebola with 3091 deaths - double what it was last month. But health officials say that it is likely those numbers are just the tip of the iceberg. There's simply no counting cases in the remote villages and hamlets not reached yet by international aid workers.

Into this growing crisis is stepping the US military. And so far, according to the Wall Street Journal, they've gotten off to a slow start.

Now, some help has arrived, partly in the form of a rare—if not unprecedented—U.S. effort. They will level swampy grassland, unload supplies and build tents, then train thousands of nurses from Sierra Leone and Liberia to treat Ebola.

The epidemic in Liberia and Sierra Leone will likely worsen until 70% of Ebola patients can find room in a treatment center or other setting where they can't transmit the disease to others, the CDC said. Currently, just 18% do so, it said.

On Sept. 16, President Barack Obama ordered 3,000 U.S. soldiers into West Africa. In a speech at the United Nations on Thursday, Mr. Obama criticized the international response thus far and said other donors—governments and organizations—need to step up quickly with aid.

"Right now, everybody has the best of intentions, but people are not putting in the kinds of resources that are necessary to put a stop to this epidemic," he said. More nations urgently need to contribute goods and services like health-care workers, equipment and air transport, he said.

Several countries and organizations have donated money and technical assistance, from the World Bank to Cuba, which is sending 165 doctors, nurses and other health specialists to the region. But more is needed, particularly because the health systems in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea have been overwhelmed.

Other help is beginning to arrive. On Sunday morning, a privately contracted 747 cargo plane landed with 2,016 rolls of plastic sheeting from the U.S. government, one of the materials needed to build an Ebola clinic.

It would take hours to unload the plane, the crew said. Liberia's airport, built in 1942, had just three small forklifts. U.S. Air Force personnel will also have to repair the runway, or for the time being, just paint it so planes don't land on parts in disrepair.

"Some companies would rather go to Afghanistan than come here," said the plane's loadmaster, Felix Curtis.

In the cockpit, a nervous first officer was wearing surgical gloves, a medical mask on his seat. He shared a pen with a Liberian, then darted to the bathroom to wash his hands: "Am I going to be OK?" he asked.

How bad is it? This bad:

Even with the U.S. response, the CDC fears thousands more lives may still be lost. New centers are filling up as quickly as they are built. On Sept. 21, the World Health Organization opened its second clinic in Monrovia, Liberia's capital. By evening, every bed was taken.

"I don't think we can open them any faster," said head clinician Anne Deborah Omoruto Atai. Near the doctor's office, a fierce rainstorm was flooding part of the clinic.

Bottom line: The disease is spreading far faster than local, national, or international relief efforts can deal with it. Our military medical and construction units will no doubt do everything they can - and then some - to help. But it already sounds like a losing battle unless massive - massive - assistance from western nations is forthcoming.The CDC is saying that the number of cases might reach 1.4 million by January. If that's the case, we are going to need thousands more health workers to treat the afflicted. With local and national health resources stretched beyond the limit already, that means international assistance on a scale never before seen will have to materialize.

So far, it isn't happening - at least, not to the degree needed. But when the inevitable happens and cases start popping up in the US and Europe, you can bet that will galvanize a world response to the crisis.

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