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Pentagon cuts planned Africa Ebola deployment by 25 percent

The U.S. military said Wednesday it would deploy 25 percent fewer U.S. troops to fight Ebola in West Africa than originally projected, but said the cut wasn’t evidence that the crisis was under control.

Army Maj. Gen. Gary Volesky told reporters in a telephone conference call from Liberia that once work had begun, military officials found that there was more local help available than they’d originally thought.

“There’s a lot of capacity here that we didn’t know about before,” Volesky said. “That enabled us to reduce the forces that we thought we originally had to bring.”

Volesky said the United States would need only 3,000 troops, not the originally allotted 4,000, to build 17 Ebola treatment centers that could treat as many as 1,700 patients in Liberia. There currently are 2,200 U.S. troops in Liberia, the focus of the U.S. effort, the general said.

“We will top out in the middle of December just short of 3,000, and that’s the most we’ll bring into country,” Volesky said. Those troops will serve as long as six months in Liberia, followed by a 21-day quarantine, a measure that will be imposed even though the troops are not expected to come into contact with Ebola patients.

So far, the U.S. military has built two treatment centers, including one in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital. The rest are to be completed by the end of the year, Volesky said.

The decision to reduce the number of U.S. troops deployed to West Africa comes as health officials in Liberia have reported a drop in new infections, from an average of 100 a day in the capital alone to the current average of 45 per day for the whole country.

The U.S. ambassador to Liberia, Deborah Malac, told reporters during the same conference call that the U.S.-built treatment center in Monrovia has empty beds.

Yet U.S. officials said the situation remains precarious. While health officials have seen a drop in new cases in Liberia and Guinea, two of the three hardest-hit nations, new incidents of infections are soaring in Sierra Leone, the third hard-hit West African nation.

Additionally, on Wednesday, the government of Mali confirmed the country’s second case of Ebola.

“A two-week window is not enough to say anything definitive. I think we have to watch it over a longer period of time,” Dr. Dan Hanfling, a clinical professor of emergency medicine at George Washington University who lectures on Ebola safety, told McClatchy in an interview.

In addition to building treatment centers, the United States has stationed seven Defense Department-provided mobile labs around the country to test for the presence of the Ebola virus in patients’ blood. Malac credited those labs with helping to slow the outbreak, by allowing potentially ill patients to know quickly if they’ve contracted the virus. Quick diagnosis allows treatment to begin before an ill person has exposed others to the disease.

“Otherwise you are going to treat everyone as though they are an Ebola patient,” Malac said.

The number of Ebola deaths surpassed 5,000 Wednesday, according to the World Health Organization. In all there have been 13,240 confirmed cases, nearly all in western Africa.

The U.S. Agency for International Development, which is leading the U.S. government effort, said 3,700 health professionals had volunteered to help. It is unclear how many of those volunteers have traveled to West Africa.

“We really are at still at the beginning of the effort,” Malac said. 

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