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President Barack Obama said the U.S. fight against Ebola has moved to a new phase, from struggling to control the deadly virus to working to eliminate it.
By April 30, all but 100 U.S. troops will be gone from Liberia, he announced. And U.S. government personnel who remain will be working to boost Liberia’s public health infrastructure, as well as to test new vaccines and therapies against Ebola.
“Our mission is not complete. Today, we move into the next phase of the fight — winding down our military response while expanding our civilian response,” Obama told a White House gathering packed with Ebola volunteers and government health officials.
Since the Ebola epidemic in West Africa started just about a year ago, nearly 23,000 people have been infected with the virus and 9,000 have died. While new infections have plummeted, the World Health Organization says 144 new cases were reported in the first week of February. In the past, that would have constituted an entire outbreak on its own.
“Our mission is not complete. Today we move into the next phase of the fight."
Obama said Americans will continue to help fight the virus in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
“Our focus now is getting to zero, because as long as there’s even one case of Ebola that’s active out there, risks still exist,” Obama said. “Every case is an ember that if not contained can light a new fire. So we’re shifting our focus from fighting the epidemic to now extinguishing it.”
In the audience or on the stage with Obama were six of the eight American survivors of the virus: Dr. Rick Sacra, Dr. Kent Brantly, nurses Nina Pham and Amber Vinson, Dr. Ian Crozier and Dr. Craig Spencer. Other volunteers who traveled to West Africa or helped treat the patients in the U.S. were also on hand, as well as top officials who helped coordinate aid efforts and staffers from non-governmental organizations.
Obama had several stand up and praised them. He said efforts must continue to find and control the virus.
“For as long as Ebola simmers anywhere in the world, we will have some Ebola-fighting heroes who are coming back home with the disease from time to time,” he said.
He said the American aid effort, by far the largest single country’s contribution, set an example and made other countries confident to step up and help.
“These values, American values, matter to the world,” Obama said.
As he spoke, WHO was releasing a new analysis of the epidemic, saying it was far from over.
“These values, American values, matter to the world."
“Despite improvements in case finding and management, burial practices, and community engagement, the decline in case incidence has stalled. The spike in cases in Guinea and continued widespread transmission in Sierra Leone underline the considerable challenges that must still be overcome to get to zero cases. The infrastructure, systems, and people needed to end the epidemic are now in place; response measures must now be fully implemented,” WHO said.
“Although we’ve made significant progress in slowing the spread of Ebola, complacency is now the biggest danger. Ebola outbreaks are continuing, with new cases discovered in remote villages in Guinea,” said Gabrielle Fitzgerald, who leads the Ebola relief efforts at Vulcan and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation and who was at the ceremony.
Obama thanked Congress for supporting the mission by approving nearly all the funds he asked for. Much of the money will be spent on leaving behind a stronger public-health infrastructure, something he said is in the country’s self-interest.
“In the 21st century, we cannot build moats around our countries. We shouldn’t try,” Obama said. “This is not charity. We do this because the world is interconnected.”