WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The U.S. military is ending its Ebola relief mission in West Africa, with the last American troops scheduled to leave Liberia by April 30. The announcement comes as Ebola infection rates have been reduced dramatically in recent months.
In September, President Obama announced that American military personnel would be deployed to Liberia to help stem the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. The military personnel participating in Operation United Assistance did not treat Ebola patients, but helped build the infrastructure and facilities to treat them.
"Given the success of the U.S. response to the crisis, the majority of DoD personnel in West Africa will now return home," Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon Press Secretary, said in a statement released Tuesday night. "Today, around 1,500 of them are already back to their duty stations and nearly all will return by April 30. All personnel have or will undergo established controlled monitoring procedures."
The first American troops arrived in October for a mission that was expected to last six months. By December the number of U.S. service members had grown to number more than 2,800, but their numbers leveled as contractors were hired to fill in roles initially slated for American military personnel.
The troops were a mix of logistical and engineering personnel who would build 17 treatment centers throughout the country to treat Ebola patients. Other personnel also trained hundreds of local and international health care workers in treating Ebola symptoms.
But the effort began slowly as the infrastructure needed to support the American troops had to be built from scratch. Once under way, the construction of the Ebola Treatment Units were slowed by heavy seasonal rains that flooded some work areas and plans were scaled back as infection rates began to decrease.
As a safety precaution all military personnel who have served in Liberia have undergone 21 days of "controlled monitoring" in case they exhibit symptoms for Ebola. No military personnel have presented Ebola symptoms.
Medical equipment will be left behind to support the 10,000 civilian responders treating Ebola in West Africa.
One hundred Defense Department personnel will remain in the region as part of a continued presence that Kirby said will "strengthen the disease preparedness and surveillance capacity of the national governments."
In a statement USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah praised the military's role in what he called "the largest U.S. response to a global health crisis in history" and said "it is important to underscore that the United States is not leaving West Africa."
Obama will speak Wednesday afternoon afternoon about the "next phase" in the fight against Ebola.
Across West Africa, the number of Ebola cases has plummeted in recent months as new infection rates are down 80 percent from their peak last Fall. In Liberia, reports of new infections have dropped from 30 a day to the low single digits.
The World Health Organization estimates more than 22,000 people in West Africa were infected with Ebola, with almost 8,800 deaths.
"We know that our work is far from over," Shah said. "Even as we have dramatically slowed the rate of new cases, USAID's efforts will not cease until we get to zero. That's why we are moving into a new phase of the response focused on building sustainable progress and local capacity -- empowering local communities across West Africa to prevent, detect, and respond to future outbreaks before they turn into epidemics."