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The U.S. military is pulling most of its troops from Ebola-affected Liberia, and more than half of them are already out, the Defense Department said Tuesday night.
The troops started moving in last fall, when Ebola cases were spreading out of control. Now, Liberia's managing just a handful of new cases, although health officials caution the epidemic could reignite at any moment.
"At the height of the epidemic, there were 2,800 DoD [Department of Defense] personnel deployed to West Africa," the department said in a statement.
"Given the success of the U.S. response to the crisis, the majority of DoD personnel in West Africa will now return home. Today, around 1,500 of them are already back to their duty stations and nearly all will return by April 30."
"Given the success of the U.S. response to the crisis, the majority of DoD personnel in West Africa will now return home."
All troops must sit out a 21-day quarantine period to make extra sure they haven't somehow been infected with Ebola.
The World Health Organization says more than 22,000 people have been infected and more than 9,000 have died in the epidemic, which spread from Guinea to Sierra Leone and Liberia starting about a year ago.
The U.S. pledged to move troops in to help its traditional ally Liberia, while British troops have been in Sierra Leone and France has helped French-speaking Guinea. WHO, nonprofit groups and other countries have also sent aid and personnel.
"To support the some 10,000 civilian responders that remain on the ground in West Africa, the Department of Defense will leave behind important assets that can help health workers stem potential outbreaks in the future," the department added.
"In addition, DoD will identify 100 personnel who will maintain a continued presence in the region working to strengthen the disease preparedness and surveillance capacity of the national governments," it said.
Health experts say more epidemics are almost inevitable if the three countries cannot build strong public health systems to keep an eye out for disease and treat patients quickly.
President Barack Obama plans an event at the White House on Wednesday to celebrate some of the Americans who have helped coordinate the U.S. Ebola efforts. "Together with our international partners — and the people of the three nations themselves — we have bent the curve of the epidemic and placed it on a much improved trajectory," the White House said.
Obama had sought $6 billion for the U.S. Ebola response, including money for the troops but also to help pay for monitoring programs to help keep people infected with Ebola from coming to the U.S., as well as drug development programs that are just now being ramped up.
"We have bent the curve of the epidemic."
U.S.-led vaccine trials are just starting in Sierra Leone and Guinea, and tests of experimental drugs are also expected to ramp up in coming weeks.
WHO says the epidemic isn't over. "Weekly case incidence increased in all three countries for the first time this year. There were 124 new confirmed cases reported in the week to 1 February: 39 in Guinea, 5 in Liberia, and 80 in Sierra Leone," it says in its latest Ebola report.
"Continued community resistance, increasing geographical spread in Guinea and widespread transmission in Sierra Leone, and a rise in incidence show that the Ebola virus response still faces significant challenges. As the wet season approaches, there is an urgent need to end the outbreak in as wide an area as possible, especially in remote areas that will become more difficult to access."